Monday, September 1, 2014

Discipline Tuning: The NeverEnding Story

You may have heard that there's an expansion in the works for Blizzard's flagship franchise, the World of Warcraft. Yessiree, they're doing another expansion, complete with flyable new areas, new races, new classes, and a whole wave of class modifications and tuning.

Tuning is a subject near and dear to the hearts of discipline priests because discipline is a spec (the only spec?) that has never been properly tuned. Oh, I'm not whining...lack of tuning has been as frequently pleasant as it has been vexing. Sometimes we're on top of the mountain, sometimes we're under it. But we're never actually among the intrepid group of pilgrims working their diligent way up Mount St. Healsmore.

Think I'm exaggerating? Let's check the tape, shall we? ("Shall we?" is always the right note of faux-outrage that informs the listener that possibly bitter soapboxing is on the way. I'm never bitter, though, so I'm just using it ironically.)

How did Mists of Pandaria treat discipline? Well, at launch, discipline was far and away the worst healer spec in the game, as their absorbs were very weak and their healing was very weak. Blizzard noticed. A month later. Incoming hotfixes changed things a bit. Instead of being the worst healer spec by a mile, discipline priests became the best healing a mile. Spirit Shell seemed to be the culprit, as it was powerful and, on a one-minute cooldown, it nicely fit the fact that seemingly every tier 14 fight was designed around the Big Bad Attack being on a one-minute timer. Or a two-minute timer. Or two Big Bad Attacks, each on two-minute timers, alternating evenly. Blizzard noticed. A couple of patches later. So for 5.2, Spirit Shell was had a shorter shield-building duration and mastery (which, for discipline, boosted the potency of absorbs) no longer affected Spirit Shell. Solved! Except that as time went on, and gear levels increased, an interesting thing happened: while Spirit Shell wasn't the meter-crushing force it used to be, discipline priests pretty much stopped worrying about healing and only focused on coating the raid in Divine Aegis. All the time, forever. There is no cooldown on Divine Aegis, after all. With the high crit levels possible through the final raid tier of the expansion, Atonement heals crit and indiscriminately put Divine Aegis on raid members non-stop. The level 90 tier of talents, Cascade, Halo and Divine Star, were uncapped area of effect healing spells...that means, it had equal effect no matter how many targets it hit (whereas most area of effect heals have diminishing returns once the number of targets hit exceeds six). It no longer even mattered if Cascade, Halo or Divine Star actually healed anyone...even if it hit a full-health raid, it was bound to put up lots of shields. Add Spirit Shell to that mix and suddenly discipline priests had the ability to lock other healers out of the precious, precious meters to a surprisingly large extent.

But Blizzard couldn't have known it would play out quite like that at the end of an expansion. Is what I'd be saying right now if the exact same thing hadn't happened in the previous expansion, Cataclysm. The mechanic was a little different...back ye olde days of Cataclysm, Prayer of Healing automatically applied Divine Aegis to all players healed by the spell equal to a percentage of the healing done, no critical strike necessary. With the huge mana regeneration available to healers by the end of the expansion, it was possible to just keep casting Prayer of Healing as the filler spell, even if the raid was full health, to build and maintain perpetual Divine Aegis on everyone. Whenever damage hit, it bounced off a nice, rubbery buffer of Divine Aegis.

But the similarities between Mists of Pandaria and Cataclysm didn't end there. Like Mists of Pandaria, discipline was pureblood crap at the start of the expansion, got hotfixed into godhood eventually, got panic-nerfed some time after that and then finished the expansion as I detailed above...the "nah, I don't think I'll be sharing the healing today" spec.

Discipline in Vanilla and Burning Crusade was not a viable raid healing spec, it was mostly used for PvP or ignored completely. Wrath of the Lich King was the first point at which the developers got serious about making discipline viable, so it began at the "non-viable" starting point and slowly climbed, over the course of the expansion, towards respectability. By the final tier of the expansion, Icecrown Citadel, well, discipline was certainly viable and occupied a valuable raid niche, but it's hard to say whether it was tuned properly because healing had become almost irrevelant. Mana was nearly infinite, every healer just spammed their strongest spell and you lost only if people didn't handle mechanics properly and were one-shot, essentially.

So very arguably discipline was properly tuned at that time, but I can't count that because healer tuning was impossible, in my view, to ascertain in that kind of environment. Outside of that single tier, discipline has been oscillating between entirely too good and entirely too weak. At some point, Blizzard is likely to just delete the spec from the game as an admission that they have no idea how to tune an absorb spec but, as Syrio Forel would say, not today.

Discipline has, from what I've heard, been having a rocky time of it on the beta because what else is new. Everyone, even other healers, agreed that at the start of the beta, discipline barely even counted as a healing spec. Tuning is slowly bringing discipline back towards the kind of thing you'd maybe consider looking at as a possibility to use for raid healing, depending.

I just thought I'd take this time to offer some thoughts on what I'd like to see for discipline going into Warlords of December November.


Atonement got out of hand. Let's just admit that. In Cataclysm it was kinda-not-really optional. The Atonement itself was pretty optional...whether you healed small amounts of damage by heals or by DPS was pretty irrelevant. Follow your muse! However. However, not building Evangelism in order to pop wings was sub-optimal for your healing. But only a little sub-optimal. Using five global cooldowns, give or take, to build the stacks and using up talent points to get Atonement, Evangelism and Archangel were enough price that you could do your work pretty well ignoring the whole issue.

During Pandas In The Mist, though, it was 100% required. Penance joined the Atonement party and for a while, Penance was better if cast offensively. Holy Fire did strong healing via Atonement and when it morphed into Power Word: Solace via a talent, it was one of the best mana regeneration abilities in the game. Even if you didn't Smite, you could build up your Evangelism stacks just fine doing what you do.

Oh and did I mention? Smite wasn't bad at all. It wasn't amazing healing, you probably didn't want to spam it during high intensity healing periods, but it did respectable healing and, later in the expansion, the Divine Aegis that got stacked from spamming it was more than worth the mana it cost. Which was close to nothing.

So yes, if you were a discipline priest and not wearing out your Penance, Smite and Power Word: Solace buttons, you were, sadly, Doing It Wrong(tm). Pure Atonement wasn't the answer all the time, but it was a good answer an unfortunate amount of the time.

So it sounds, from reports, like Atonement is being nerfed. That's proper and right and all decent, moral people can get behind that. sounds like they're nerfing it into near uselessness. Uselessness for the actual healing those spells still need to use Atonement to build Evangelism stacks to pop wings. That relationship hasn't changed and it seems like discipline priests are balanced around using Archangel a lot. So, discipline priests will still need to cast five Atonement spells per 30 seconds. But each of those casts might be wasted global cooldowns outside of the stacks you get, which means the whole mechanic/relationship will be pretty punitive. In order to get the thing you need to get, you must throw away quite a few global cooldowns. That seems like maybe a wild oscillation the other direction. You know, I've seen this movie before.

So what to do? What would I do? Well, you've come to the right place to hear what I would do. I would do this:

  1. Make offensive Penance strong, but not as strong as casting it "defensively" (into an ally)
  2. Make Holy Fire/Power Word: Solace strong
  3. Make Smite terrible, akin to what Heal is right now on live, which is terrible

Why is this the right approach? Because Penance and Holy Fire/Power Word: Solace (one becomes the other depending on how you talent) have cooldowns, so you can't spam them. Making them pretty good is no different than other healers having some solid but cooldown-constrained spells, which they do. Since Penance is better when cast defensively, the "right choice" will not always be to cast if a mana-constrained world, you will often want maximal efficiency in keeping that awful tank alive, so getting the most healing by using the spell defensively will be something you'd want to do sometimes. Other times, when the tank is mostly stable, you'll be more willing to lose some healing-per-mana efficiency in order to split your Penance among three people (since each tick of the spell can heal a different person through Atonement) and get a stack of Evangelism.

And using the Atonement you can spam, Smite, during any period of tough healing will be like trying to put out a conflagration by standing over it and answering the call of nature (applicable to male or female). Ineffective, pitiful-looking and extremely painful. You can spam it, if you want, during low intensity healing, but it'll do low healing and low damage, so any Divine Aegis formed will be minor and the amount of damage you bring as utility will also be pretty minimal. It'll just be flavor...discipline's style of doing close to no healing for little mana.


And now we come to the problem that has haunted developers when it comes to the healing side of the game ever since discipline became viable: how do you balance absorbs?

Here's the crux of the problem: unlike actual healing, absorbs reduce the incoming damage. Why is that important? Because you can't heal up death. If a player has 100,000 health and one healer can put a 40,000 absorb shield on that player before damage comes in while another healer can heal for 40,000 (or 50,000!) after the damage comes in, which do you think is more valuable when 110,000 damage hits that player?

That leads to this question. Do you, as a game developer, balance boss damage around having the wall of absorbs that a discipline priest (or two, or three) can offer, or you do balance boss damage around not having it? Either answer is wrong. If you do balance it around having the shields, then the damage is borderline unhealable if you don't have a discipline priest (or two, or three) because the damage will have to be nearly double strength since it's assumed to need to break through a buffer of absorbs first. If you balance the boss damage around not having the shields, then a discipline priest (or two, or three) can completely trivialize the mechanic.

To me, there's at least one good answer:

  1. Make discipline absorb spells extremely potent (I was tempted to stop here)
  2. Make discipline absorb spells extremely expensive--ruinously so, if cast a lot
  3. Give discipline priests adequate actual healing powers
  4. Avoid making every fight low-damage/high-damage alternating phases

(4) is surprisingly important. When it comes to meter winning (and actual effectiveness in winning boss encounters), a major benefit for discipline priests is getting to essentially pre-heal high-damage phases during low-damage phases. Discipline priests can use the final 10-20 seconds of a low-damage phase to start building their shield wall on the raid. When the high-damage phase hits, all of that prep time gets applied to the stressful phase and discipline priests can continue healing. The net effect is that they get 10-20 seconds of "extra healing time" in the phase that other healers do not.

Having that sort of design sometimes is can't completely remove one damage pattern if you want varied encounters. But every encounter can't play that way if you want to rein in the effectiveness of shields. Damage patterns like moderate damage at all times or longer stressful periods (with longer light damage recovery periods) can mitigate (pun intended) discipline's advantages in this area. The perfect fight design for discipline to exploit their strengths is a high damage period every minute that lasts for no longer than about 10-15 seconds. The further a fight's damage pattern is from that, the less advantageous for discipline.

As for (1) through (3), the idea is that if a discipline priest wants to primarily spend their mana on absorption, that's fine...but that's all they'll be able to do and they'll be paperweights for 75% of the fight due to being out of mana, so they'd better make their 25% activity time count. Alternatively, they can mostly heal like the rest of the unwashed masses and very rarely use absorption shields as emergency measures. Or they can find some pleasing mix in the middle. But they should be forced into hard choices...absorbs are great, but they shouldn't be the right choice all the time. Using your absorbs should cost you the ability to do other things.

In Conclusion

Actually, I don't have anything more to say. I thought I'd have something to tie this all together with a nice little bow, but what're you gonna do? Hope this was mildly interesting!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Show And Tell, User Interface Edition

While some of you longer-time readers may remember a post I wrote at the inception of this blog about minimalism in UIs, it probably hasn't been obvious that UIs are of great interest to me (in WoW and out of WoW). I spend a lot of time working on my UI and looking at the UIs of other people (and I steal ideas constantly because there are so many brilliant designers out there). In any case, my blog has rarely reflected my passion for UIs so here's a post about my UI.

Even Shadowy Arts Need To Be Clear

I'm only going to feature the UI for my main character, Shanthi, a priest who plays shadow and discipline. I make different UIs for my alts, but Shanthi's is the one I've spent the most time honing and, besides, maybe I can feature alt UIs in other posts. You may not have noticed, but I tend to run out of ideas for things to write about in this space at times.

So, first I'll show my "main" shadow UI. This is the one that shows off most of the relevant UI aspects. There's one other mechanic not shown here, because it's based on a talent that I don't usually have spec'd, and that I'll show in the next video. First the video and then some explanations and thoughts. (Remember, with all of these videos, watch in 1080p! Also maximize the video so that small details are more visible.)

The smaller frame above my player unit frame is, as you may have guessed, my focus target. At the start of the video, I mouse over it a couple of times to illustrate that the name shows up on mouse over. It may seem redundant since I also get a tooltip which has the name, but I have tooltips disabled in combat, so if I need to know what I currently have focused, it's useful. The vast majority of the time, though, I know what's focused, so text isn't necessary. As you can see, the focus frame has progress bar timers for my two main DoTs, Shadow Word: Pain and Vampiric Touch. That's valuable for when I want to keep DoTs on both my current target and my focus target (my DoT keybinds apply the DoT to my focus if I'm pressing shift).

The pulsing icon of a potion to the immediate right of my player frame simply shows that my potion cooldown is up and I'm free to quaff a potion. I didn't think to use a potion during this video...when I have potion cooldown in effect, the icon desaturates (switches to gray scale rather than possessing color), stops pulsing and has a red text cooldown timer on it. You can see the same effect on my Halo cooldown tracker.

Which brings me to the group of alerts (Weak Auras, all) that are to the left and a bit above my target frame. This group consists of zero to three white bars (tracking shadow orbs) and two or three icons tracking...important things (more on this in a second). A white line divides them, which is just for aesthetics. The key thing, you'll see, is that when I reach three shadow orbs and hit Devouring Plague, the three bars that indicated three shadow orbs are replaced by a progress bar showing the duration of the Devouring Plague on my target. This is important when I have the Solace and Insanity talent, which turns my Mind Flay into a super-powered licorice whip. Mind Flay goes from lowest priority to nearly the highest priority when under the "Insanity" effect, so it's important to know when that's the case. In addition, any Mind Flay that begins while Devouring Plague is up retains the "insanity" super-power for the entire duration of the channel, so seeing the Devouring Plague duration allows me to start a final Mind Flay just before Devouring Plague ends.

When I don't have the Solace and Insanity talent spec'd, that progress bar doesn't appear (as you'll see in the next video, when I have From Darkness, Comes Light spec'd) because without Solace and Insanity, I don't need to know about Devouring Plague's duration. It's just extra damage that doesn't have any further interaction or decision-making importance.

Below the white line there are spots for three icons. The first one is always my level 90 talent (Halo, Divine Star or Cascade). Right now, it's the aforementioned Halo tracker that I noted works like my potion tracker. When it has color, it's ready to be used, when it's desaturated and has a red countdown timer, it's on cooldown. The second icon is a Shadowfiend tracker and works the same as the Halo tracker. The third spot depends on my level 75 talent choice. If I have Power Infusion, then it's just a Power Infusion tracker and works just like the previous two. If I have Divine Insight, then it simply shows when I have a Divine Insight proc available, which can be useful to know since it makes Mind Blast instant and if I'm kiting something (like Thok), it's good to know when I should jump-spin-Mind Blast-spin back-land and keep running. Finally, if I have Twist of Fate, then it shows the Twist of Fate icon when I proc it and a timer for how long it'll last.

The other important clump, of course, is my central timer bars. The red one is for Shadow Word: Pain on my target, the purple one is for Vampiric Touch on my target, the white one is the cooldown on Mind Blast (with a flashing orange prompt for when it's off cooldown) and the blue bar that keeps appearing above those three is my cast bar. I don't display any text on my cast bar: I know what spell I'm casting and the exact time remaining before it completes has never been important in my decision-making. The numbers beside the Shadow Word: Pain and Vampiric Touch show my current effective spellpower (with things like haste and mastery translated into a spellpower value) relative to the effective spellpower when I applied those DoTs, and it displays it as a percent. 100 means my current spellpower is the same as my spellpower when I applied the DoTs, greater than 100 means my current spellpower is higher and lower than 100 means that my current spellpower is lower. When it's lower, the background goes red. When it's enough higher to be worth wasting GCDs to reapply the DoTs (which I've set to 120, or 20% higher current spellpower), the background goes green.

I also don't have DoT tick marks on my timers or channel tick marks on my cast bar, which may cause some to raise a questioning eyebrow. Regarding DoT ticks, I find that I refresh my DoTs prior to the last tick many times over the course of an encounter, for reasons that have nothing to do with ticks: either because a number of major procs means that I want to reapply the DoTs to "snapshot" those procs (DoTs hold the same spellpower, haste and mastery values that you had when you first cast them until they fall off or you reapply them) or because I want to reapply them so that they don't fall off while I'm focusing on Mind Flay: Insanity during Devouring Plague. The rest of the time, when I just want to keep them from falling off, I don't find it hard to generally time it for the last tick just by watching the progress bars. As for the cast bar, I haven't found a noticeable DPS gain or loss by simply channeling Mind Flay until a higher priority ability causes you to stop flaying, as opposed to waiting for the next Mind Flay tick before using the higher priority ability. If something (in this case, tick indicators) doesn't have value to me in decision-making, I cut it out.

Approximately halfway through the video, I switch targets to one of the "near death" target dummies. I did this to show an effect that appears in execute range.If you watch my target frame after the target switch, you'll notice that periodically, a flame effect appears on it. This indicates that Shadow Word: Death is available to be used (the first use resets the cooldown on it if that use didn't kill the target, which is why the flame effect seems to persist...I have to cast Shadow Word: Death twice in order to put it back on cooldown).

My relative lack of action bars may be surprising to some. Like most people, I have my abilities keybound and memorized. Therefore, I don't need my action bar of rotational abilities for either functional or informational use. I do have a small action bar beneath my player frame of occasional use items and abilities that have cooldowns, so I can keep an eye on when things like Vampiric Embrace or Dispersion are available.

That should pretty much explain the aspects of my UI that might not be entirely obvious to someone who isn't me. If you have any questions about it, please feel free to ask!

But What If You Get Mind Spikey?

The main UI element that that UI does not show is how I track upgraded and instant Mind Spikes when I have the From Darkness, Comes Light talent spec'd. Also, because I decided to put some lovely balearic dance pop over the video, you didn't get to hear a couple of my audio cues (one for Mind Blast and one for each charge of From Darkness, Comes Light). Therefore, here's another video. Watch my target frame for the Mind Spike indicators.

Those magenta leaves that swirl in and out track whether I have one or two charges of From Darkness, Comes Light, with vocal cues indicating that I have one or two charges. Not a lot to say here: I used that spinning animation to make it extremely obvious when I get or use charges, but not so ostentatious that it's distracting to me. Plus, I think it looks nice.

As you can see, the Devouring Plague progress bar does not appear, since I don't have Solace and Insanity spec'd. Instead, the shadow orb indicators simply disappear, since I used them up.

Healing Requires Its Own Look

My healing UI has a similar structure (my player and target frames don't change their look or position and my chat windows are in the same place) but, since I'm tracking different abilities, the dynamic parts of my UI are entirely different. As per usual, though, the stuff I want to see all the time is located toward the center of my display with some procs delegated out to my player or target frame. Check it out (since healing training dummies aren't really A Thing, I simply recorded a heroic dungeon through the first boss, which went...unusually), then I'll discuss:

You'll notice that three people insta-gibbed themselves by running through the ice wall (ice walls hurt, kids). Not my fault! (Though pulling an extra skelly guard with my Halo was my fault...I wasn't paying quite as close attention as I normally would because I was thinking about the video and this blog post). I was left to essentially DPS the boss down myself (the warlock was A. doing less than 20k DPS and B. mostly focusing on the guards even though they don't have a soft enrage and the boss does).

Anyway. First thing to note: when combat starts, my player frame has a relaxing, watery blue glow. That's my indication that my mana is above 90%. I like to know that for two reasons: one, there's no point deploying my Mindbender (if I have that talent) when my mana is that high and two, it encourages me to burn some mana so that I don't risk overcapping. That's really more for raiding, though. In heroic dungeons, mana isn't particularly relevant.

Also, note the three orbs between my character and my party/raid frames. There's a small white one, a larger brightly glowing golden one and a small purple one. More on this later.

Later, after a few (five to be precise) attack spells, my player frame takes on an exciting and dynamic golden glow. That's my indicator that I have Archangel ready to go: it's off cooldown and I have five stacks of Evangelism. In heroic dungeons, I almost never actually use Archangel, because I prefer the damage boost of the Evangelism stacks. However, for demonstration purposes, I pop wings (Archangel) when we reach the boss.

A few other things to notice early: the icon beside my player frame (to the immediate right, where the potion tracker was in shadow) is for Purify, my friendly dispel. Like the potion tracker, it's colorful when available and desaturated with a red cooldown timer when not available. Unlike the potion tracker, I actually used it so you can see it in action. On the initial trash, I dispel something (I don't know dungeon trash mechanics and don't care) from the tank and you can see my Purify go on cooldown.

My cast bar is tucked away underneath the action bar which is, itself, below the player frame. I don't consider my cast bar as important when healing, so I don't centralize it. I experimented (for a short time) with not even showing my cast bar, but it felt uncomfortable, disturbing and perverse, so I put it back, but out of the way. Below the cast bar is a timer for Evangelism, so that I can keep track of when it might fall off. If there's a Bloodlust (Heroism for you Alliance folks), a timer for it appears in that area as well.

Soon after we engage the boss, I hit Archangel and Spirit Shell. At this point, the golden glow on my player frame goes away. Also, the white orb turns gray and begins depleting with a numeric timer beside it. Also also, the golden orb loses its luster and turns yellow and it, too, begins depleting with a numeric timer within it. The white orb is an Archangel cooldown tracker. The golden glow on my character shows when both Archangel and five stacks of Evanglism are ready, but there are times when I want to know how long before I can pop wings, so that's what that orb is for. The golden orb indicated that Spirit Shell was available. Once I activate Spirit Shell, the yellow depleting orb shows me how long I can stack Spirit Shell. Once Spirit Shell is over, that center orb turns blue and begins depleting in the opposite's now tracking the cooldown on Spirit Shell.

The third orb, the purple one, is for Shadowfiend. I forgot to use it for demonstration purposes, but it works like the Archangel orb: a bright color when available, a depleting darker hue of the same color when on cooldown and a numeric timer beside it (to the right for that orb, as opposed to the left for the Archangel orb).

You can also, at times, see large icons appearing just above my left chat frame. Those are debuffs on me (with common ones like Weakened Soul and Sated filtered out) so that I can easily see when I get important debuffs. Mostly of import when raiding.

On the target frame of whatever I'm killing, you'll notice that their health text display turns red when they get low. In fact, it turns red when they're at 20% health or less. That's a holdover from before my flashier Shadow Word: Death indicator, I used that red text indicator for both Shadow Word: Death on Shanthi as well as Kill Shot on my hunter. Even though I now use this splashy indicator, I still like the look and feel of the red text, so I kept it.

Finally, there's that clump of text above and on the left side of my party/raid frames. Those are indicators for important rotational abilities that have cooldowns: "so" is Power Word: Solace (it would be "hf" for Holy Fire if I didn't have the Solace and Insanity talent), "pn" is Penance, "pm" is Prayer of Mending and "hl" is Halo (it would be "cs" for Cascade or "ds" for Divine Star if I had chosen one of those talents instead). Why am I using those text displays? I simply think they look nicer than the icons. I actually try to minimize the number of icon displays I use for ability alerts (because I think floating icons generally don't look great) plus I hate the look of the icon for Prayer of Mending...tremendously ugly. The text is just as clear to me. Why is floating text better than floating icons? I don't know. It just is.

Well, that's about all I got. Sorry for such a short post...maybe next time out, I can write a really long post.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Set Your Hearthstone To Fun!

Seriously, that's the title of the post and I'm non-ironically sticking with it.

Back a few years ago, I suggested that I would soon be writing a post about Hearthstone. That soon has come and it is today. So let's get to it!

I will assume, for the sake of focus, that you know how to play the game. You really don't need any pre-teaching, in my opinion, as the in-game Hearthstone tutorial does a good job of introducing you to the game slowly and unveiling the mechanics of play as you go. By the time you fight Illidan, you are quite prepared.

This post will focused on the advice that I think will be useful for new players; those who have just begun playing, have finished the tutorial and would like some tips on being efficient from the get-go. These tips won't be sufficient to push you to Legend rank, but they should help you avoid some common pitfalls.

What Are Your Resources?

The most obvious resource you have with which to do things is mana. You get one extra mana crystal of capacity per turn and you need mana to do almost anything in Hearthstone. So yes, mana is a resource and a very important one.

There are a couple of other less-obvious resources that you need to be aware of, though, and a couple of related concepts that're not precisely resources but should be discussed along with resources.

The first non-obvious resource to discuss is your hero's health. Many inexperienced players don't look at their life as a resource but rather as a gauge to determine who's winning (and, eventually, who won). That's the wrong way to look at is a coin that you can spend and you should spend it for the right things. While it's not quite this cut-and-dried, there's something to be said for the idea that life doesn't matter until it hits 0.

So what are the right things to trade life for? Why, the things I'm about to discuss.

The second non-obvious resource is cards. The more cards you draw and play, the higher your chances to win go. Having more cards means having more options. Options help you in a few ways. One is that you can handle more varied threats that your opponent develops on his side of the board. "Board states" (what you and your opponent each have on the board at any given time) are problems, puzzles to be solved. Solving them means turning them to the greatest advantage possible for your chances of winning. Cards in hand (and on the board) are answers. The more cards you have available at a given time (and not hidden somewhere in your deck), the more answers you have, giving you a better chance of high quality solutions. Drawing cards is highly favorable. Your opponent drawing cards is highly unfavorable. Each of you has a base card draw of 1 every turn...anything beyond that can really generate a significant advantage.

Now we reach the "related concepts to resources" part of our program. The first one we should discuss is board control. Board control is simple: having a superior set of minions on your side of the board than your opponent has on their side of the board. This can be as simple as having one minion out when your opponent has nothing, or as complex as each of you having five minions out but your minions being capable of more favorable trades. Trading is the act of using one of your minions to kill one of your opponent's. It's a cornerstone of Hearthstone play. If you have a minion with 4 attack and 5 life (by convention denoted as a "4/5") and your opponent has 3/4 minion, you can make a favorable trade, since your minion will kill theirs and leave you with an injured but still very much alive minion (now a 4/2, since it took 3 damage in the trade). Consistently trading smartly and maintaining a stronger board presence than your opponent is often a path to victory.

The final important basic concept is what is known as tempo. Tempo is arguably the most confusing and hazily understood of the basic dynamics and I've seen many stabs at trying to define it, many of them confusing it with card advantage, which we've already covered. I think the easiest way to explain and understand tempo is as such: Tempo is the pace that you effectively use mana over the course of the game to impact the board as compared with your opponent. An example or two should help flesh this out. 

The rogue card Sap is a classic tempo card. At first blush it may seem to accomplish little; you don't destroy the minion, you simply defer it. But let's look at it through the lens of tempo, when used properly. You and your opponent have relatively equal boards, though yours is a bit better set up for trading, going into turn 8, but your opponent gets to go first on turn 8. They use all of their mana to drop an Ironbark Protector. Knowing that you have to trade into it due to its taunt, they attack you directly with their minions. Your life drops to a still-robust 20, but they now seem to have a much stronger position. However, on your turn 8, you sap their Ironbark Protector. That costs you 2 mana. You then use your remaining 6 mana to drop a Boulderfist Ogre. You make those favorable trades that you were set up for before they summoned the Ironbark Protector, destroying their board and leaving several of yours up, as well as the ogre. The next turn, they can summon the Ironbark Protector again, sure. But if so, you've won a few things. First, they very likely lost 7 mana relative to you. 6 mana was lost in summoning the Ironbark Protector the first time, which cost them 8 mana, and you removed from the board for 2 mana. In addition, they mostly likely did not have a 1-mana play to go along with the Ironbark Protector on turn 9, so the 8-mana card is an inelegant fit for turn 9, whereas it fit their mana capacity perfectly on turn 8. The other thing is that now they're summoning their Protector into an empty board (on their side). That means that you've stolen the initiative. You're well set up next turn to run your ogre and a small minion that survived your merciless reign of terror against their board on turn 8 into their Protector (assuming you don't have an even better way to destroy their Protector), possibly leaving one of your surviving minions on the board plus 9 mana to add to your board.

Going the other direction (and hopefully dispelling some confusion), a card like Arcane Intellect is an anti-tempo card. You use three mana and don't affect the board at all. That's not to say it's a bad does generate card advantage (you've turned one card into two) and card advantage is a very important thing. But so is tempo. 

And that brings us to an important thing to understand about Hearthstone: even more than minion trading, Hearthstone is, at heart, about trade-offs. Arcane Intellect trades tempo for card advantage. The warlock hero ability, Life Tap, trades life for card advantage. The rogue hero ability, Dagger Mastery, trades life for board position. Each time you make a decision on what you wish to play, you have to hold these competing dynamics in your head and figure out which dynamic helps you at this time to give you the best chance to win the game down the line.

Win Conditions

Remember that old fad that came into popular consciousness around the 1970s or 1980s that exhorted people to envision success to achieve success? See it and be it? No? Okay, that was just a test to ensure that you're super young and cool, just like me. Thank goodness you passed.

Ahem, in any case, my point here is that whenever you play a deck (whether it's one that you designed yourself or one that was shared by someone else) you should have an idea of how that deck wins. In some sense, you need to be able to envision how that deck succeeds, because your plays should be such that you avoid shutting off those avenues to success. If your deck is built around using the Gadgetzan Auctioneer drawing you tons of cards until you get the ones you need, then you probably don't want to trade your auctioneer into an opponent's minion if you don't have to. If your deck wins by fireballing your opponent to death, you probably don't want to use a turn 4 Fireball on your opponent's 3/3. Resist the temptation and try to get a minion out soon to deal with that opposing minion.

You always need to know how you're going to win and play as if that win condition is coming to come about. If your deck's win condition(s) are too narrow (for example, you need exactly these 5 cards to win and you don't have a lot of ways of staying alive for 20 turns), you won't win a lot and you'll need to tweak your deck to make your win conditions a little broader, hopefully containing multiple ways to win the game.

Learn To Play The Mid-Range Game

There are a few well-established playstyles in Hearthstone (and other card games, like Magic: The Gathering). Not every deck that people play fit perfectly into these archetypes, but they do a good job of generally splitting up the universe of collectible card game decks.

These archetypes are as follows:

Aggressive/Rush: Often shortened to "aggro" and also often called "zoo," these decks aim to flood the board with small minions, the better to overwhelm their opponent quickly. The win condition is to do enough damage to the opponent to kill them before the opponent can get out enough large minions and/or spells to wipe the board clear and stabilize things.

Control: These decks are trying to control the board, generally through spells and "utility minions" (minions with special powers rather than threatening stats), until the late game, which is when they start using their major (and costly) threats to kill their opponent. The win condition is generally to stay alive for 8 or more rounds without much minion trading before crushing their opponents with beefy minions or a flurry of damaging spells.

Mid-Range: This can also sometimes be called "value," but the general idea is to build a balanced deck with a good distribution of early-game, mid-game and late-game minions. Generally the minions this deck will play for a given mana slot are good "value" minions...minions that have good stats for their cost (after considering any special powers or lack thereof). The win condition is to build your lead through incremental victories on the board until your opponent simply runs out of life.

I'd strongly recommend that a beginning player start their Hearthstone adventures with a mid-range deck and work on playing that style of deck as skillfully as possible. There are a few reasons for this.

First of all, it's the most straightforward type of deck to play. Control decks and aggressive decks often involve somewhat tricky look-ahead--what you play and how you use your minions should be strongly influenced by projecting future turns and how you see the game proceeding over the next X turns (granted, this is more true of control than aggressive). Neither deck should really be played purely as "what puts me in the best position this turn?" Whereas, with a mid-range deck, that's a perfectly reasonable way to play. Even with a mid-range deck, look-ahead and being better able to predict what your opponent might do is useful and the more you hone such predictive powers, the better you'll do with any deck. However, with a mid-range deck, optimizing your board state for each particular turn with absolutely no consideration for what your opponent might do in the next turn or two will hurt you the least. I think that learning to optimize your board state on a given turn is a very important skill to learn and the best skill to work on first. Predictive play requires experience, which you don't have yet...optimizing board states doesn't require experience, it's much more an exercise in logic and resource management.

The second reason is that the Arena is a very useful tool to expanding your collection of cards and Arena play is pretty much all about mid-range play. The reason for that is that control and aggressive decks are extremely hard to build when you're given random choices for cards. The Arena gives you 30 choices of 3 cards (choosing one card out of each 3 card slate gives you your 30 card deck), and you never know what your choices will be later in the draft. You may want to build an aggressive deck and take 3 cheap minions in your first four choices...and then end up being offered mostly medium and large minions and spells the rest of the way. Similarly, the chances of you getting enough spells and late-game threats to build a viable control deck are vanishingly small. The only way to handle the randomness of the Arena's deck building process is to take the highest quality card from each slate, adjusting your choices slightly later in the process based on what you've already selected (if you've already selected a lot of expensive minions, you may want some cheaper ones; if your deck is more spell-heavy, you may want to prioritize more minions). The result of doing this should be a relatively balanced deck with some cards for the early, mid and late game. That's a mid-range deck!

Finally, by playing a deck of "value" cards (I strongly suggest you look around on the web a bit for discussion of which cards are high value, because it's not always apparent to someone new to the game what offers the most value in Hearthstone), you start to understand why those cards provide so much value. Understanding why "value cards" are valuable is a crucial step to being able to evaluate cards in general and you'll really only understand that by playing those cards and seeing when they shine.

While this isn't a Hearthstone blog, I may write a post on card value. Something to think about, anyway.

In general, when constructing a mid-range deck, you want your deck to have a mana curve that somewhat resembles a bell curve. Your mana curve is a bar graph of all the cards in your deck organized by mana cost. Having it resemble a bell curve means that you have less of the least expensive and most expensive cards, a few more of the slightly more and less expensive cards and the most cards of roughly average mana cost (3 or 4 mana). You can see your deck's mana curve, while you're building it, by mousing over the name of the deck at the top right of the screen, just above the card list. In the Arena, the mana curve of your deck as you're building it will be prominently displayed in the bottom middle of the screen

Here's an example of a somewhat compulsively balanced deck:

But don't get too concerned over it looking exactly like that. Here's another example of a reasonably well-balanced deck minus the pretty-looking curve:

Just frightfully ugly as a curve, right? But think of your deck like this: cards that cost 0-2 mana are "early game," cards that cost 3-4 mana are "mid-game," and cards that cost 5 or more mana are "late game." In this case, you have 8 early game cards balanced by 8 late game cards and then you have 13 mid-game cards, and you generally want the largest proportion of your deck to be in the 3-4 mana range.

That's simplifying it, of course. There's no particular reason to call a 5 mana card late game rather than mid-game. A 3 mana card could be considered an early game card. But if you organize your deck that way, you'll generally find that your deck costs out well--that is to say, you usually have an appropriate card, or combination of cards, to play for the amount of mana you have on a given turn.

These aren't hard and fast rules. When you're starting out and building a mid-range deck, it may be helpful to balance your deck like the curves I've described here. However, as you play and generate your own sense of things, you may want to fiddle with your mana curve. Maybe you play a mage most of the time and you often find that you like to use your hero power on turn 2. If so, maybe you feel comfortable dropping some early game cards in favor of some more mid-game cards. I'd just caution you not to make your deck too top-heavy--it's very hard to recover from a starting hand comprised mostly of 5 and 6 cost cards unless you get supremely lucky with every draw after that.

But experiment! You learn a lot from science experiments, even the ones that blow up.

RNG Gonna RNG, Amirite?

My final advice to you is to embrace the fact that there is a fair amount of RNG (short for "random number generation" and shorthand for "built-in randomness in computer games") and you should embrace that fact--correctly.

Let's be honest--there's a very random element to any game in which your assets in game are handed out, well, randomly. No matter how good a deck you build, when you get the cards in it is completely subject to luck. You can mitigate that randomness by building (or getting from someone else) a deck design that can work with many card orders, but no deck is immune to just getting the wrong cards for the situations that present themselves.

There are two common pitfalls for newcomers to these types of card games when they come to grips with that randomness. One is to underrate exactly how random the game is and get frustrated by every loss, wondering what they did to lose a game that may have been unwinnable. The other is to overrate exactly how random the game is and assume that every loss they suffer was just due to "bad luck" (or, conversely, their opponent just getting very lucky).

So how random is the game? Well, Trump, a very popular Hearthstone livestreamer, a very experienced collectible card gamer (going back to Magic) and someone with a pretty good grasp of numbers, has estimated that the game is somewhere around 20% luck. How he came to this conclusion, I don't know, but I trust his evaluations of the game and the number seems reasonable to me. Let's assume that that's right for the moment and consider what that means.

Here's one way to look at that number: If Hearthstone is 20% luck, we could use that percentage to divide all the games we play into 20% of our games being determined entirely by luck and 80% of the games we play being determined entirely by skill. This is not the way it would actually play out in reality (in reality, every game would be partially luck, partially skill), but in the abstract it's a valid way to understand how 20% luck would impact us.

20% of games is 1 in every 5. No matter how good one is, you'd expect to lose 1 game out of every 5 just because life sucks sometimes. It's in the other 4 games out of 5 that you rise and fall based on your skill (again, in the reality, things don't divide up that neatly).

The best way to wrap your head around the game being random is not to think of it like a game of chess, where it's purely skill deterministic and if you play flawlessly, you'll win. Even if you play a game relatively flawlessly in Hearthstone, you might still lose. Your opponent may just get exactly the right card at exactly the right time. No, you should consider every good decision as pushing the odds slightly more in your favor. Every mistake you make push the odds further against you. Your only goal when playing the game should be to keep piling the odds in your favor with good deck design and smart decisions each turn. Do that and let the chips fall where they will. This is the mentality of professional poker players. No matter how good they are at the game, they know that they can't be sure of winning any given game. All they can do is keep making smart decisions, incrementally build the odds in their favor and then hope more games fall in their favor than don't.

I look at Hearthstone as a logical puzzle game with a random element. Keep trying to solve the puzzles and don't get frustrated when you lose. Set your Hearthstone to fun. (Again, seriously. Not even a bit ironic.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Return to Tumbleweed Junction

So, as I see it, I haven't really written much lately on this blog. I'm still playing World of Warcraft as much as ever. Well, we did reduce our raid nights by an hour per night--partially to prepare for joining forces with another guild (who prefers three-hour raid nights to four-hour raid nights) in order to be able to do mythic raiding in 6.0 (because god knows we have no realistic hope of recruiting enough to get up to 23-24 people). But 6.0 is far away, we didn't have to reduce hours now. The other reason we trimmed hours was because it seemed like several of our raiders might be risking burnout. It just seemed like a good combination of reasons.

I wasn't among the people getting burned out. I've rarely found raiding current content less enjoyable over time. The few times that I have, it's been due to social reasons rather than the raiding itself. As an ancient Chinese philosopher* once wrote: "Raiding instances is easy; humans, is what's hard."

*I can't remember the name of the philosopher, but he wrote it in English

So this downturn in blogging output isn't related to lack of interest in the game. It's that I've stopped having opinions, apparently. At one time, I had lots of opinions, opinions about everything. Opinions about raiding, about healing, about music, opinions about the beauty of a sunset. Then one day, I woke up without any. Is this band any good? I dunno, they certainly have a sound. Is the sun hot? I wouldn't want to venture a guess, but a textbook might provide you an answer.* What's healing like in 5.4? Eh, healing is healing.

*Are the Beatles overrated? Yes. Because some things don't change.

I don't know how you, the four of you who read this blog, perceived this blog, but I'll let you in on how I perceive it (I may have mentioned this before, but this seems like a good time to re-iterate it, if so). Well, just before I get into that, let me say that the thinking I most enjoy doing is understanding the underlying processes behind dynamics. My job is user-interface designer--someone who designs the ways applications and websites work for the users. But you (usually) don't get a degree in "user-interface design." The degree that leads to this sort of job generally, depending on the school, has some combination or version of these terms: "cognitive science," "human-computer interaction," "human factors."*

*Not that the specific degree has to matter. You could be the guy or girl who gets a degree in anthropology and then follows your dream to be a self-taught biochemist or astrophysicist. Perhaps not the easiest or simplest path, but it's been done. Also, this has, thus far, been an exceptionally asterisk-commented entry.

A big part of that type of discipline is understanding processes, usually so you can either design that process better or design something well based on that process. It suits me, as I said earlier; I enjoy understanding the underlying processes. My perception of my blog (which wasn't always a conscious initiative all along) is taking a concept (like Spirit for healers) or activity (like, healing) and breaking it down into the underlying processes so that it might be more understandable and some insights might be gleaned that weren't obvious from the eye-in-the-sky view of it.

What has happened, then, is that I've exhausted the processes to write about. Or rather, when surveying the vast emptiness lately on this blog, I've run out of processes that I, personally, find interesting to talk about. I'm still playing, still trying to do my best for God And My Country. However, nothing new has piqued my interest to write about. And there's no point trying to write about things that don't interest me, because that way lies filler articles--the very notion disgusts me!*

*This post is not filler. It's going somewhere, just you wait and see. And won't you feel bad for doubting me when you see? On the other hand, it can't be a good idea to push confrontation with my last remaining reader, so I apologize.

So what now? Well, I still consider this a World of Warcraft blog. If I do keep adding entries (and it is my current plan to keep writing, when I can), the majority should still be about World of Warcraft. If the plan, or the actual reality, changes, I'll say so. That said, I have also been playing Hearthstone quite a bit. Hearthstone is a collectible card game (CCG) that Blizzard has developed based on the World of Warcraft universe. If you've played Magic before (I have, though long ago) or the World of Warcraft trading card game (I have not), this game will be immediately familiar to you, though with some differing mechanics from Magic.

If you have never played a CCG before, the general premise is that you start with a pool of cards that cost mana and either summon a creature (called a minion in the game) or have a one-time effect (spells). You assemble 30 of these cards into a deck, which is shuffled into a random order. You and your opponent are each dealt a starting hand of 4-5 cards and you each start with one mana. Every turn, you each draw another card at random and get another point of mana added to your mana pool (to a maximum of 10, though many games go more than 10 turns). Each turn, you can spend whatever mana you have (with some exceptions that aren't important here) to play the cards in your hand (if possible...obviously, you can't play a card that costs more mana than you have). Playing those cards will either put a minion in play or have a one-time effect, depending on whether you played a minion card or spell card. You and your opponent each have 30 life and the first player to bring their opponent's life pool to zero wins the game. You can attack your opponent, or your opponent's minions, with your minions or spells.

There are a few more complexities to it, but that's the broad overview. It's light entertainment (matches rarely go more than about 10 minutes and there isn't a huge amount to know, if you want to play relatively casually) but it has enough strategy and logic to be satisfying. There's also some depth to the game to allow you to put in more time commitment, if you desire. But it's far from necessary to play the game enjoyably. The other big concept (and what puts the first 'C' in "CCG") is that you only start with a small percentage of all the possible cards in the game. You can buy packs of cards (with gold, which can either be won by playing casually, or purchased with real money) or you can win cards (and gold) by playing arena matches, which has a gold (or real money) cost. The more matches you win during an arena run, the more rewards (cards, gold) you win. Acquiring more cards in your collection expands the types of decks you can build--deck-building can be a fun outlet for creativity and a major selling point of CCGs.

Don't be daunted by those mentions of real money. The game itself is completely free and you can quite easily expand your collection of cards without spending a cent. I haven't used any real money at all and I'm quite satisfied with how my collection is filling out.

If you've never played Hearthstone, the above was meant to give you an idea of what it's all about, in case it interests you. I'd suggest giving it a try and seeing if that style of game is for you. If you do play, my next post is going to be my collected wisdom about Hearthstone that may be of use to you (assuming that you're not already a pro player). As a new game, there are processes to playing it that I can mine for an entry! An easy conduit to another post.

Again, though, I still consider this a World of Warcraft blog, so don't see this as a format change to a Hearthstone blog. But since I am playing and, presumably, a fair number of people are, it seems within reason to dedicate a post to Hearthstone. Which will be my next post, coming Soon.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Spirit and the Prevalence of Magical Thinking

Okay, back to writing about healing (heck, back to writing anything about anything).

The biggest misconception I see about healing regards spirit. Spirit, in all honesty, is not a very complicated thing in World of Warcraft (it's arguably complicated in real life). It quantifiably increases your mana regeneration, which allows you to cast more spells. We can tabulate how much extra mana we'll get from spirit (thus, quantifiable) and we can quantify how much healing power that mana provides us.

I emphasized that second part because it seems to get lost in many/most/all healer discussions about spirit. Spirit has become a very mystical* concept in the healer world, for reasons that aren't entirely clear in this increasingly mathed-out game.

*There's some irony in decrying something as having "mystical" standing in a game about magic and dragons. But I digress.

Ask about how much spirit one should have as a healer on a major healing forum and the answer you'll invariably get is, "Enough to feel comfortable then start stacking 'throughput' stats." This is wrong on a lot of levels, but the root is that people just aren't thinking about spirit the right way.

Now, I realize that asking "How much should I have?" in a public forum is always going to be a meaningless question, for any stat, if you're looking for a number. However, we can give non-numeric answers that help the asker (or ourselves) come to good results. If someone asked "How much critical strike [or haste or mastery] should I have," I can guarantee you that the most popular answer wouldn't be "Enough to feel comfortable."

"Comfort" is such a vague, nebulous word that we're already starting off on the wrong foot. Healers seem to mean, by "comfort" with spirit, not noticing themselves running out of mana (OOM) very commonly in whatever content they're competing in. That's a really poor metric, because mana usage is fluid...not only do different encounters have different demands, but different playstyles can use mana differently. There isn't a static amount (or even a modest range) of spirit that means you're incapable of running out of mana...this isn't defense capping (for those of you who go back at least to Wrath) or full combat table coverage (for those of you who go back at least to Cataclysm). Even on a per-person basis, your spirit needs change and they should always be changing based on the situation.

Healers have, for some reason, come to regard spirit as a force outside of the optimization game, something not well understood and best left up to "feel" or one's gut. Does your current spirit total feel good? Then you have enough! Doesn't feel good? Get more! Can't say whether it feels good or bad because there's really no frame of reference and the question is a little silly? Um, well... [end transmission]

So What Is Spirit?

Spirit is a throughput stat like critical strike, mastery and haste with one difference: rather than empowering your spells, it empowers you to cast spells. This difference seems to throw a lot of people for a loop, but it's really not a huge difference.

After all, we can quantify this. Spirit, at level 90, gives you this much mana regen (per five seconds): 6,000 + (0.56435)Spirit. We can multiply that by 12 to get how much mana regen per minutes. Let's say you have 12,000 spirit. That formula yields 12,772 mana per 5 seconds (MP5), which is 153,266 mana per minute...approximately half your mana bar per minute.

What can you cast with 153,266 mana? Or, to be more fair, what can you cast with 81,266 mana, since 6000 MP5 comes for "free" per the "6000" constant in the formula, which equates to 72,000 mana per minute if you had no spirit at all. Over a 6 minute encounter, your 12,000 spirit is netting you 487,598 mana.

Is that worth more than investing those 12,000 points of stat budget into things like critical strike, haste or mastery? That's a much more complicated question, of course, and it depends greatly on class, but it's one that can be investigated.

You can do the same exercise on a smaller scale, like whether cutting down from 12,000 spirit to 11,000 spirit is a good idea. Or whether a spirit trinket is better than a haste trinket. You can calculate the numbers and then evaluate what you'd spend that mana on. That gives you a much firmer perspective on how much spirit you need than "how it feels."

What Can We Spend Mana On?

Okay, yes, heals, of course (unless you're a discipline priest, then DPS spells). But which healing spells? Ignore your spells that come with cooldowns attached. If those spells are good ones, you'll be casting them pretty much on cooldown and more mana won't allow you to cast them more because the cooldown prevents you. Mana doesn't give you more Penances or Swiftmends. What it will give you is more of your spells that have no cooldown, your "spammable" spells. These are cast as many of them as your mana allows, around your cooldown-limited spells.

So we're talking about spells like Rejuvenation, Prayer of Healing, Chain Heal, etc. These are the spells that you should check the mana cost on, compare it to the mana you'll get from spirit and from that calculate the approximate throughput you're adding.

If you have a World of Logs record of your performance, the comparisons become reasonably straight forward. For example, you can figure out how much critical strike percentage you'd get from the same amount of stat budget and multiply your non-overhealing output by that added percentage and compare that with the added healing you'd get from the X extra Rejuvenations you could have cast, as an example.

Of course, that does introduce a tricky element: over-healing. If you critical strike more (or cast faster due to haste, or just hit harder with your heals through mastery) some of that extra healing will likely be pushed into overhealing. This might actually be a benefit to more spirit...since you control where and when the extra casts go, presumably your decision-making will bias those spells against being overhealing (though with other healers in the mix, this is far from certain).

The point is not that you can come up with clear-cut certainty as to which will give you more bang for the buck, spirit or another secondary stat. The point is that you do not need to relegate this comparison to the realm of feelings and intuition-elves. You can sit down and take a more systematic look at it.


You neither want to blindly stack spirit, nor blindly cut spirit. You don't want to think to yourself, "I don't run OOM, so clearly I must cut spirit." You want to consider what spirit nets you (not mana, the healing output of the extra spells you're able to cast) versus the healing output that the other secondary stats net you. Logical thinking versus magical thinking. Spirit isn't weird and's concrete and it gives you more healing spells to cast. Nothing hard to understand or calculate there.

If I were to boil this down to a principle (beyond "investigate what everything nets you"), it would be this: If the spammable spells your class affords you are powerful, you're probably better off with more spirit. If the spammable spells your class affords you are somewhat lackluster, then you're probably better off with less spirit (other secondaries will allow your cooldown-limited spells, which you rely disproportionately on, to hit significantly harder).

That said, don't let anyone tell you that spirit is touchy-feely. You don't stack it til you feel comfortable. You stack as much of it as you can effectively use. If you have strong spammable spells and don't come anywhere close to running out of mana, that may just be a sign that you should cast more (and more expensive spells).

Hey, wow, I just wrote a blog post.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Best Practices for the Shadowy Arts

I probably still heal more than I DPS, though I DPS as a greater percentage of my raid encounters than at any time in my raiding history since I had a retribution paladin as my main. However, I have no fascinating insights about healing right now. Maybe I will if I sit and think through what I do a bit more carefully--one consequence of working hard on my DPS is that I think a lot less about healing than I once did. I think I still do a good job, but I depend a lot more on gleaning best practices from other people than I once did.

However, shadow...I have all sorts of things to say about that right now, as I suppose my recent posting history suggests. ("All sorts of things" defined as "something every three or four months or so.")

 A couple of the people I read have been doing some "best practices" posts, about restoration shamans and healing priests, respectively. If you really want to read about healing, check them out. Wait, wait...on second thought, no, don't click away from this post. They get enough traffic.

Vampiric Touch Is A Last Resort

Vampiric Touch is not a vitally important spell. In fact, there are only two situation in which you should use it. Admittedly, those two situations will ensure you use it a lot, but it's useful to understand why you're using it so that you don't overuse it.

  • Situation 1: You are fighting one or two opponents and you have nothing else to cast except Mind Flay. Getting Vampiric Touch's damage rolling is worth a Mind Flay GCD (which will, in fact, lead us to another shadow pillar in just a moment). But you should literally place every other rotational spell (Devouring Plague, Mind Blast, FDCL Mind Spike, Shadow Word: Pain refresh, Shadow Word: Death, Shadowfiend/Mindbender, the level 90 talent you've chosen) ahead of casting or refreshing Vampiric Touch.
  • Situation 2: You are fighting multiple opponents that will live for a decent amount of time and more opponents will join the fight. In this case, you do not want to put Vampiric Touch on every monster. You want to put Shadow Word: Pain on every monster and Vampiric Touch on just a few of them, before resorting to Mind Sear (and things like Mind Blast, Devouring Plague, Shadow Word: Death, etc, when possible). 

The reality is that in situations like the second one, every Vampiric Touch cast is a DPS loss because you can no longer replace Mind Flay ticks with it...between all the Shadow Word: Pain casts and refreshes, important single target casts and Mind Sear, you always have a higher DPS offering. The sole reason you want to cast Vampiric Touch in this case is for the mana regeneration. Lots of Shadow Word: Pain casts is mana intensive and you don't want to run out of mana (being unable to cast is an even bigger DPS loss). A good rule of thumb is that one Vampiric Touch for every two Shadow Word: Pain casts will keep you approximately mana neutral. Of course, if you're only getting one wave of adds and they won't be around long enough to keep refreshing your Shadow Word: Pain, you don't need to be mana just need to not run out of mana before the adds die, at which point you'll presumably return to your single-target rotation, which is mana positive.

So, in general, you'll just want to cast Vampiric Touch when one of two conditions is met: you're only replacing a Mind Flay tick with it or you need the mana regeneration from Vampiric Touch.

All GCDs Are Not Made Equal

Whenever you make a choice as a DPS, the main resource that you're spending is not mana, it's GCDs. It's still ultimately an opportunity cost decision...a healer generally has to weigh casting a spell against the possible spells they could have used the mana on, while a DPS has to weigh casting a spell against the possible spells they could have used the GCD on.

However, there is a big difference: mana is a fungible resource, a GCD is not. Every bit of mana is essentially identical in value for the purpose of casting spells, whereas a GCD's value varies wildly due to cooldowns. You can't use every GCD on Mind Blast, because the spell is cooldown constrained. So which spell you could have used the GCD on determines the GCD's value. A GCD in which you could have cast a Mind Blast is extremely valuable whereas a GCD in which you could have cast, say, a Vampiric Touch is significantly less so.

(It bears noting, of course, that healers also have cooldowns to contend with and therefore GCD analysis can come into play for them as well, especially when not mana-constrained, as was the case at the end of Wrath of the Lich King.)

All of this means that you can significantly minimize the consequences of actions by replacing Mind Flay GCDs. I like to say that casting Mind Flay is better than casting nothing, but not much better. Which means you have a lot of almost free GCDs to fit things in when necessary. One example is the above principle; it makes using Vampiric Touch a DPS gain because all you're losing to get it up and refresh it is an occasional Mind Flay tick.

Another example is (now) purely theoretical: The original patch 5.2 redesign of Shadow Word: Insanity was fairly simple: whenever you had three of your own DoTs up on a target (so all of Shadow Word: Pain, Vampiric Touch and Devouring Plague), your Mind Flay would be buffed. This means that the Mind Flay buff is constrained by Devouring Plague up-time (since the other two DoTs you can keep up virtually at all times). The natural behavior that this encourages is to cast Devouring Plague every time you have a single shadow orb. Devouring Plague scales linearly with the number of shadow orbs consumed, so you lose no Devouring Plague damage by casting it with less than three orbs. The cost of doing that is you consume more GCDs for the same Devouring Plague damage, so it's a DPS loss to cast it at less than three shadow orbs.

However, when you consider that A. each Devouring Plague gives an equally long and strong buff to Mind Flay regardless of orbs consumed and B. the lost GCDs would essentially be taken from (unbuffed) Mind Flay, it became entirely obvious that it would be a clear DPS benefit to cast Devouring Plague at one shadow orb.

Blizzard realized this and didn't want shadow priests not ever saving up shadow orbs, so they quickly changed the design of Shadow Word: Insanity such that the buff you get to Mind Flay is based on how many shadow orbs were consumed by Devouring Plague, which returns it to the original state: you don't gain any extra DPS by using less than three shadow orbs, so you only lose DPS from the extra GCDs spent on Devouring Plague.

You can see, though, this principle in action with these changes. Losing unbuffed Mind Flay GCDs is simply not a particularly large loss, so nearly any DPS gain will be worth losing them.

You can put this into effect in various ways. A big one is movement. Movement is a DPS gain in that if you die, your DPS plummets. When possible, if you can time your movement for times when you'd otherwise Mind Flay, you'll lose a lot less DPS than if you move when you could be casting, say, Mind Blast. Another example is if you want to cast a Power Word: Shield during a high damage phase, it's ideal to cast it when you're only stealing the GCD from Mind Flay.

It should also inform your gearing. Haste is very useful for reaching a haste plateau for Devouring Plague but, when you can't, it's pretty nearly worthless to gear for. Added haste that won't get you an extra tick of Devouring Plague will only shorten your spell cast times...which means more Mind Flay time. It's far better to get critical strike, which will improve the DPS of all your spells, or even mastery, which will improve the DPS of all your DoTs.  Both will benefit you much more than being able to channel Mind Flay more often will benefit you.

Master The Art Of Multi-Dotting

This tier (and quite likely the other tiers of this expansion) feature a lot of fights with adds. To get the most out of such fights, you need efficient methods to keep DoTs rolling on as many targets as possible (again...the major one to distribute is Shadow Word: Pain; only put Vampiric Touch on multiple targets when you need the mana regeneration or your only other possible action would be Mind Flay).

The techniques I've found to be most valuable in managing multi-dotting are as follows:

  • Set a focus, track your focus, make it obvious which of your DoTs your focus has (and time remaining on them) and make it easy to apply DoTs to your focus. The best way I've found to easily maintain DoTs on my focus is using shift-modifiers on my usual Shadow Word: Pain and Vampiric Touch keybinds. So, if 4 is Shadow Word: Pain and 5 is Vampiric Touch, then shift-4 puts Shadow Word: Pain on my focus and shift-5 puts Vampiric Touch on my focus.
  • Make sure frames for boss1, boss2, boss3 and boss4 are enabled and easily visible in your UI. These are unit frames that Blizzard makes available by default for major adds that pop up during a raid encounter or for each member of a council boss. For example, the active quilen in the Stone Guard encounter of Mogu'shan Vaults are represented by boss1, boss2 and boss3 frames. The two tendons (right and left) in the Spine of Deathwing encounter of Dragon Soul were represented by boss1 and boss2 frames. These allow you to quickly put DoTs on different active creatures, and track those DoTs, whether you want to use an addon like Clique to click DoTs onto those frames or use mouse-over macros to apply DoTs via those frames.

Remember that positioning doesn't matter for applying can cast DoTs onto even targets directly behind you. So the challenge is just in swift targeting and tracking among multiple monsters.

Survival Priests

Shadow priests have a lot of survivability utility, both for themselves and for others...make use of it. Some fights, especially on heroic mode, can be extremely healing intensive and if the raid can just survive a little bit longer, the raid can get the boss kill. Help your healers out when it makes sense, especially when healers have to be cut in order to make an enrage timer.

  • Glyph of Dark Binding: This is my least favorite option. When it affected Binding Heal (during the beta), it had a ton of potential. Now that it only affects Renew, Prayer of Mending and Leap of Faith, I think there are significantly better glyph options. I don't consider Renew or Prayer of Mending to be particularly great options for shadow priests, but if you can find ways to weave them in such that they're useful and don't hurt your DPS too much, it's definitely worth considering. One point worth making here: getting a Renew or Prayer of Mending on someone below 25% health can trigger Twist of Fate for your damage dealing.
  • Glyph of Fade: I like this glyph quite a bit, especially on a fight like heroic Gara'jal the Spiritbinder. By fading off 10% of the damage I take when I'm a Voodoo Doll, I also reduce the damage all the other Voodoo Dolls in the raid take. There are various fights where dropping your damage taken is well worth the GCD (again, remember...if you're replacing Mind Flay ticks, it's not a major DPS loss).
  • Glyph of Inner Sanctum: This is particularly nice simply because it's passive. Since you should always be using Inner Fire as a shadow priest, this is a flat reduction to magic damage at all times. Any fight in which you can expect the raid to take a lot of magic damage, this can be a very valuable glyph to slot in and it doesn't require any mental overhead once the encounter starts.
  • Power Word: Shield: The old priest stand-by. As an instant 60-70k health buffer, this can be a great use of a GCD either for yourself or for a raidmate. If you see someone on the verge of death, especially a healer or tank, giving them an immediate buffer gives the healers a chance to get them back up to safety before they actually keel over. This also has the benefit of not kicking you out of Shadowform when you use it.
  • Vampiric Embrace: This is the big one. The one you should be making your healers and/or raid leader aware of, because it can very easily be a raid-saver. Any DPS you do during the duration also provides HPS (healing per second). If you glyph it (and I strongly suggest that you do), it's like having an extra healer for the duration, while not losing any DPS at all (it's off the GCD, so you don't even lose a GCD). The reason that I suggest glyphing it is that, generally, raid health is only in serious danger for short, intensive bursts. Spiking your raid's healing as much as possible for one of those times is a bigger benefit than dribbling out a smaller amount of healing over a longer period of time.

Figuring out how and when to use abilities, talents and glyphs to help keep you and your raid alive, without hurting your DPS much, is a very important part of mastering playing a DPS role in raids.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Do Priests Need Mind Spike In Their Spellbooks?

I suppose this blog was in danger of becoming abandonware, considering my last post was before Mists of Pandaria launched. It wasn't that I didn't want to write, nor was it that I wasn't enjoying World of Warcraft: Mists of Panadria, nor was it even that I didn't have time.

What I didn't have was anything interesting to say. I suppose readers will judge whether I've ever had anything interesting to say, but I don't do recapitulation of news, nor do I tend to do standard healing/DPS guides, nor do I tend to document my own adventures. I try to write when I think I have a point that I haven't seen represented elsewhere and isn't (from what I can tell) common knowledge/common sentiment. In other words, dear reader, I try to shut up when I don't believe I have something worthwhile to say, much as I'd like to push my blog back up people's readers with a new post.

That's just an aside explanation for why so long between posts...this isn't a stealth "let me get a new post up by explaining how I don't just write filler posts." That would take chutzpah, and I don't have the chutzpah necessary.

No, this post is about Mind Spike. Or, at least, primarily about Mind Spike. Rather, we could say this is about Mind Spike's role in the shadow arsenal leading into a broader (or maybe narrower) point about shadow as a whole. Though, ultimately, it's about something else entirely. It's complicated, but you'll see if you read on!

One more piece of business to attend to before I get to the main event: The last post was about shadow and this post is about shadow, but I am not now a pure shadow priest and this is not now a pure shadow priest blog. I still heal a fact, I think I still heal more than I DPS. I DPS any fight in which we only need two healers, and we're three-healing most progression fights right now, especially as we push further into heroic raid encounters. I DPS a lot of farm encounters, though! (And even a few progression fights. I consider it important and even necessary to be on top of my shadow game.)

Why Mind Spike?

Mind Spike joined the priest toolbox with the advent of Cataclysm. When it was added to the class, the rationale for it made perfect sense: it was a situational nuke for a specific situation--an add that needed to be burned down quickly, too quickly for damage-over-time (DoT) spells to be useful.

Shadow priests have traditionally been a long ramp-up-time DPS spec; that is, it takes them a while to go from zero to 60k DPS, because they need to get DoTs up and get shadowfiend out and the whole thing is a lot of up-front GCDs when you're fighting something that needs to die quickly. It's the difference between sustained DPS and burst DPS...a spec that can do a good amount of DPS over an 8 minute fight may not be able to effectively contribute to a 30 second burn phase and vice versa.

Both are important. It goes without saying that one's total DPS over a fight is generally the most crucial aspect, but hitting "burst windows" can often be just as, or more, crucial in certain fights. The Spine of Deathwing fight in the Dragon Soul raid had a tendon that became available to destroy for short periods of time, and getting it down within the necessary time frames was required to defeat the fight, especially on heroic mode. In this tier, the Elegon encounter in Mogu'shan Vaults has waves of adds that must be burst down before they reach a certain place in order to stack an increased-damage-taken debuff on Elegon that's necessary to meet the enrage timer.

Going into Cataclysm, shadow priests really didn't have much burst potential. Mind Blast had a cooldown and DoTs and Mind Flay were too slow. Mind Spike was supposed to fill that niche: a damaging spell that would allow priests to start blasting something immediately but, thanks to its DoT-extinguishing mechanic, couldn't be used rotationally. This suggested that Mind Spike could be a really powerful but really situational spell, useful for adds that you didn't want to DoT because it wasn't supposed to survive that long.

Now, I'll admit it: I have no idea if it was successful in that role in Cataclysm, because I barely played shadow in Cataclysm. I was a committed discipline priest going into Cataclysm and I spent the first two tiers switching around my off-spec several times a week, trying to find a spec I was comfortable with alongside discipline. I eventually settled on holy in T13. I followed the news generally about shadow (as I do about a lot of classes and specs, because I'm a bit of an obsessive geek), but I didn't have any serious experience.

That has changed with Mists of Pandaria. I was tired of being one-dimensional--just a healer. Not only did I feel limited in what I was capable of, I felt like it constrained our raid team, not to have a proper swing-DPS. So I picked up a shadow spec and committed to learning it fully, tailoring a UI for it and both figuring out and researching tricks to optimize my play as a shadow priest.

All of which has led me to one question: Why Mind Spike? The above rationale for it makes sense--it just doesn't fill that role as we stand in Mists of Pandaria.

As a hard cast, Mind Spike's damage is virtually never worth casting. The damage is uninspiring and it removes the DoTs that you have rolling on your enemy. So it isn't worth using in your rotation and the low damage makes it a poor tool to spam on adds that won't be around long enough to be worth putting DoTs on. It's better than nothing, but not much better than nothing.

It seems, then, that when you consider that you can't use it rotationally nor can you use it a short-term nuke, Mind Spike really doesn't occupy a useful niche...except for one.

From Darkness, Comes Light (And Beyond?)

The one time that Mind Spike is worthwhile to cast is when a shadowpriest has the From Darkness, Comes Light talent and Surge of Darkness procs. This makes Mind Spike instant (the value of which is that it allows you to use it when moving, as the cast time is the same as the GCD consumed by an instant), significantly increases its damage and causes it to not extinguish the DoTs you have rolling.

This is a fairly potent ability (made more so by the Glyph of Mind Spike) but considering that this is the only time that it's worth using, it seems a little unnecessary to make it a spell in one's spellbook...why not simply make it a button you can use when you take the talent, like many other talented abilities? Not that it's a particularly big deal that it resides in the spellbook, but it seems like a rather wasted spell in the arsenal.

Unless...we extended the concept of From Darkness, Comes Light a bit and also fixed another problem with the shadowpriest toolkit: lack of a burst DPS cooldown. As I noted above, it's important to have a way to occasionally shift into another gear when necessary and shadowpriests don't have that. If we consider a single-target fight, we have one speed: normal. Add that needs to be burst down right now? Normal single-target rotation. Execute phase with the enrage timer seconds away? Normal single-target rotation. It not only takes away versatility and decision-making, it's also unsatisfying.

However, what if we repurposed Mind Spike to fill the niche that it was originally supposed to: burst DPS? But we want to make it a cooldown, something we can only use once in a while, but is quite powerful those times. Well, shadowpriests used to have a bit of a cooldown in Cataclysm (of varying power)--Dark Archangel. But Dark Archangel is gone, leaving only the nifty wings graphic in the form of a minor glyph that appears when you use Devouring Plague.

It would be nice to have Dark Archangel back in some form, it would be nice to have some sort of DPS burst cooldown and it would be nice to use Mind Spike a bit more, considering it's a real spell in our real spellbook.

With that in mind, I present an entirely new spell (in concept, numbers could be tweaked because hell if I know how to balance numbers across all classes):

This is obviously built upon the existing functionality of From Darkness, Comes Light but would not require that talent. It steals the mechanic (because it's a very good mechanic, in my opinion) but is independent. You could have both, but even if you took another talent from the tier, you'd still have this Dark Archangel cooldown.

This would provide a significant opportunity for burst DPS. You would still weave in Mind Blast (and Shadow Word: Death if the target were at 20% health or less) because you'd still want the resource generation, and you'd still use Devouring Plague to dump your shadow orbs, so that future orb generation wouldn't be wasted but, otherwise, you'd use Mind Spike as filler during the duration of Dark Archangel instead of Mind Flay, which would be a major increase in DPS for the 15 seconds (or whatever professional class designers considered balanced).

Ultimately, I think that shadowpriests need a burst DPS cooldown in order for the spec to have the needed variability in play. That's the foremost concern here, even if the post title is misleadingly about Mind Spike. However, with the Mind Spike spell going to waste outside of one talent, and a great graphic that used to be tied to a great concept being wasted on a minor glyph, it seems like the opportunity exists to synthesize these issues into a single solution.