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.

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