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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shadow And The Constraint Model Of DPS

The more time I spend working on DPS (first my hunter and now my shadow priest spec), the more I realize that DPS is built around a constraint model, far more so than healing is. Constraints, of course, are limitations on the system you're working with, either organically arising from the nature of the system or (as is always the case in games) artificially arising from the rules applied by the designers of the system.

Healing has some pretty simple constraints: cooldowns (global cooldowns and the cooldowns on abilities) and mana (and holy power, in the case of holy paladins). There are helpful mechanics that you can make use of, but those are more tools to help you survive within the above mentioned constraints. Without those constraints, healing would be a simple matter of casting your "best" (combination of power and speed) spell over and over (and that has happened at times in the history of WoW when designers didn't make the constraints compelling enough).

DPS would seem to be somewhat similar, but while cooldowns still exist as constraints (especially global cooldowns), the main power source (like mana) often doesn't. Healing decision-making revolves around selecting the right targets and dealing with the above mentioned constraints of cooldowns and mana. DPS decision-making revolves around a more precise prioritizing of abilities based on the constraints each ability places on every other.

That was probably as clear a winter's night in Seattle (Seattle is perpetually overcast and misting/raining during all seasons except a couple of months in summer, but especially winter) so let me explain what I mean by using the shadow spec as an example.

What Are The "Core" Abilities Anyway?

Here are the abilities that will make up the vast majority of shadow DPS:

For clarity, I'm only talking about single-target damage on boss-like creatures, not low-health adds. So Mind Spike will only be relevant if you take the talent From Darkness, Comes Light (FDCL). I've chosen that talent, so Mind Spike will be a part of the analysis. A similar exercise can be done with the abilities you gain from the other two talents on the tier (and the level 90 talents will add further constraints, though not particularly complicated ones it appears).

Mousing over those abilities, you can see some basic constraints, like mana costs and cooldowns. Those aren't the particularly interesting ones (mana is virtually impossible to run out of, in fact I can't drop below 95% mana or so--my healer heart weeps at the injustice), so let's get to the meat of the matter.

Constraints? You Mean, Just Cast The Best Ability Off Cooldown, Right?

That's the usual take on DPS and it'll work to some extent. This is the type of thing you'll usually see about the current shadow rotation, for example:

Shadow Word: Death > Mind Blast > Devouring Plague (with three shadow orbs) > From Darkness, Comes Light Mind Spike > Shadowfiend > Vampiric Touch = Shadow Word: Pain > Mind Flay

Basically, this means, use whichever of Mind Blast, Shadow Word: Death, three shadow orb Devouring Plague, instant Mind Spike or Shadowfiend is available, with that order of priority if multiple options are available. If none of them are and either Vampiric Touch or Shadow Word: Pain are near expiration, refresh them. If neither of the previous two sentences applies, use Mind Flay.

Doing this in a machine-like fashion won't yield terrible results, you'll do reasonable DPS...but it won't be optimal. To optimize, you need to juggle in your mind all the constraints I'm about to discuss in order to make the best choice on a moment-by-moment basis. 

Let's get to it! (I'm going to omit mana costs and cooldowns, because we've already noted them. Also, remember that I'm discussing single-target damage on boss types of monsters, so I'll also ignore the duration of the damage-over-time [DoT] spells as a constraint.)

Mind Blast
Benefits: The second hardest hitting shadow spell, provides a shadow orb
Constraint(s): None, right? Actually, the constraint is that you can only have three shadow orbs at a time

Shadow Word: Death
Benefits: The hardest hitting shadow spell, provides a shadow orb
Constraint(s): See above. Also, technically a constraint is that it can only be used when your target is below 20% health (unless glyphed) but we'll ignore that by lumping it into "cooldowns" since this constraint is irrelevant to what I'm describing

Devouring Plague
Benefits: A hard-hitting DoT spell, fantastic damage per casting time invested (DPCT)
Constraint(s): Requires three shadow orbs (technically, you can use any number of orbs, but you only want to use it with three)

FDCL Mind Spike
Benefits: Hits about as hard as Mind Blast (though it doesn't provide a shadow orb)
Constraint(s): You can only have two charges saved up, further procs will be wasted

Benefits: Better DPCT than the spells listed below
Constraints: None beyond the long cooldown

Vampiric Touch
Benefits: Better DPCT than Mind Flay
Constraint(s): Cast time (this has greater relevance for a DoT than a conventional spell, I'll explain later)

Shadow Word: Pain
Benefits: Better DPCT than Mind Flay
Constraint(s): None, practically

Mind Flay
Benefits: Better than a hole in the head (more correctly: much better than standing idle)
Constraint(s): None, practically

(I ignored mana returns as a benefit for a couple of abilities because, as I said, mana is close to irrelevant. You can price that benefit in for fights which contain as a gimmick taking away all your mana, ala Yor'sahj the Unsleeping.)

So these notes lead us to a logic that's a bit more complicated than the basic priority system laid out above.

Putting It Together In Practice

First some logical consequences...

There's little question you want to cast Mind Blast the moment it is off cooldown...unless you have three shadow orbs.
Which means that a Devouring Plague with three shadow orbs is the top priority...except that the only time pressure on Devouring Plague is the next Mind Blast. As long as you cast it before your next Mind Blast is available, there's no DPS loss.
Which can be handy if Shadow Word: Pain or Vampiric Touch is about to expire or you have two charges of FDCL Mind Spike.
That leads me to FDCL Mind Spike. It sits higher in the priority list than the DoTs...but since you can save two charges at a time, one charge of FDCL Mind Spike isn't a pressing priority. It's better to refresh a DoT that's near expiry before burning a charge of FDCL Mind Spike if you only have one charge.
But if you have two charges of FDCL Mind Spike, then you want to burn a charge of that off pronto, probably even above casting that three orb Devouring Plague.
Shadow Word: Death pretty much follows the same rules as Mind Blast when the target is low enough in health that Shadow Word: Death is available.
Shadowfiend should be used any time it's off cooldown and, since it has no constraints, could be used ahead of Devouring Plague or FDCL Mind Spike with one charge, but could also be pushed behind refreshing Vampiric Touch or Shadow Word: Pain.

This leads to some complicated decisions at times. Let's take an example:

Shadow Word: Pain is 2.5 second from expiring
Vampiric Touch is 2 seconds from expiring
You just completed a cast of Mind Blast, giving you a third shadow orb
A charge of FDCL Mind Spike just proc'd

The usual priority chart would have you cast Devouring Plague, then Mind Spike, then refresh the two DoTs. However, if you hold the Devouring Plague and Mind Spike in abeyance and first refresh Vampiric Touch and then the Shadow Word: Pain, then cast the Devouring Plague and then the Mind Spike, you'll see better DPS, since you have no opportunity cost for withholding the Plague and Spike for a few seconds, whereas the opportunity cost of holding back on the Shadow Word: Pain and Vampiric Touch is letting them expire (costing you DPS and procs from talents like From Darkness, Comes Light and Divine Insight which is further DPS).

This, however, creates a few more caveats...

The reason I mentioned using Devouring Plague before Mind Spike in the above example is because I did take the Divine Insight talent, which means that Mind Blast is always at risk of having its cooldown reset. Which means I actually do want to get Devouring Plague cast off as quickly as possible, so that if I suddenly have an unexpected Mind Blast to cast, I don't have to push it back to avoid wasting the shadow orb it would generate (and pushing Mind Blast back is a DPS loss). Which is a further constraint on Devouring Plague, if you use that talent. However, if you don't use that talent, then you'd actually want to cast the instant Mind Spike first...because your next Mind Blast will be coming at a predictable time (and you should be able to plan to get Devouring Plague cast before Mind Blast comes off cooldown) whereas you might get two quick procs of FDCL while you're casting Devouring Plague (and then waiting out the global cooldown it initiates) which would cause one to be lost if you already have a charge of FDCL (you can't hold three charges at a time).

Getting back to my earlier mention that cast time is a constraint when it comes to a DoT, if you had Vampiric Touch and Shadow Word: Pain close to dropping off (say ~2 seconds away) and both about equally close to dropping off, then you'd want to cast Vampiric Touch first. A cast time spell followed by an instant will lead to both spells being cast more quickly than the instant followed by the cast time spell, because the latter puts a GCD between the casts. Of course, in the case of the former, the GCD will still happen after both spells, so the total time used is identical...but since the lower priority of the DoTs means you'll generally be following it up with something non-mission critical (Mind Flay, oftentimes), you're better off pushing that follow-up spell back rather than adding extra time to the DoT refreshing if there's a risk that one of the DoTs could drop off your target altogether.

In Summation

This is a pretty long wall of text and may or may not seem like a lot to bear in mind, but it all starts to feel pretty natural and instinctive once you've practiced on a dummy enough and put those constraints into practice. 

The real point is that while basic priority systems give you a general idea of what matters more and what matters less, you need to look at the constraints of all your abilities, as illustrated above, to understand how to fit your abilities together in real time.

Friday, September 7, 2012

From Light...Comes Darkness?

I've done the unthinkable. I've crossed over from the Light to the shadow. From the light side of the force to the dark side of the force. A shadow has passed over my soul.

Oh, not entirely. I did drop my holy spec for a shadow spec, but I retain my trusty, true-blue discipline spec. You can have that when you pry it from cold, dead, pixelated hands.

That said, this does signify a bit of a twist in the road for me. I've dabbled in DPS, but generally on other classes and mostly in Wrath. In Cataclysm, I pretty much lost the way with DPS and healed all the things with all the things. I have one of each healer type at max level and that's pretty much all I did. Until recently, that is.

Starting a couple of months ago, I began getting back into my hunter, mostly neglected since Wrath except to level her up to 85. I realized that the reason I was pretty mediocre each time I took a half-hearted stab at DPS this expansion was due to never setting up a proper UI specifically for DPS. Even more so than healing, in my opinion, you need a really good informational set up about your abilities. The old maxim that DPS is a science, tanking is a skill and healing is an art really holds true to me. You obviously need a good informational set up to heal, but it's a different set of information, in my opinion. Healing has a large "feel" component, DPS is all about sharp precision. That's overly simplified (healing requires its own set of precision, DPS needs a feel for certain things) but I think it conveys the general idea.

Anyway, starting with my hunter, I began figuring out how to build a really good DPS UI for me. A UI that created an informational flow that made hitting the right ability at the right time feel natural. I had some good results on my hunter and I think hunter is a blast. If I could weld a discipline priest spec to a survival hunter spec on the same character, I would.

I can't, though, and I do want a proper DPS spec on my main character, which will continue to be my priest, Shanthi, into Mists of Pandaria. The biggest motivator was to be versatile, for the sake of my teammates. Having been the healer with two healing specs (discipline and holy), I was obviously never going to be doing anything but heal. For most of tier 13, we had three healers, which was fine until we hit heroic modes and dropped to two healers for various encounters. At that point, we usually needed one of our healers to go DPS and guess who it wasn't going to be? I felt bad that someone else always had to shift, never me.

So that was the primary motivation. Wanting to be useful as more than a healer. I often run five-mans with friends and one of those friends is a main spec healer also. Since you very rarely two heal five-man dungeons, she always had to switch to accommodate me. I needed more versatility.

However, as I've spent more and more time, since patch 5.0 dropped, working on my shadow UI and rotation, I've found it to be a lot of fun. I've been asking to go DPS as much as possible in raids to get practice keeping my DPS as high as possible while handling's a lot of fun handling a different role. Also, it's a lot of fun melting the faces of monsters.*

*Additionally, shadow has far cooler minor glyphs than discipline or holy. So there's that.

So now I feel very comfortable about heading into Mists of Pandaria as a discipline/shadow priest. I'll offer my raid more options in terms of composition and it really won't be any kind of sacrifice for'll be fun whether I'm healing or DPSing.

This was going to be the introduction to a post in which I talk about my observations of the best way to play shadow (hey, we're all new to 5.0 class mechanics and I've been spending a lot of time reading and thinking about shadow DPS, even if I'm not a long-time shadow priest)...but this "introduction" got a little longer than I expected, so I think I'll just leave it as a stand-alone post about what I've been up to and follow it up in a few days about my thoughts on shadow priest DPS.

I believe that this blog will still mostly focus on healing (with a bias toward priest healing) but there will probably be some posts about DPS (with a bias toward priest DPS) now and again.