This is the third in a series of posts discussing our tanking rotation. In the first two parts, we investigated the topic in an abstract sense to try and describe the features that make a rotation enjoyable and interesting. In Part I we talked about the tempo and interactivity of a rotation. In Part II we turned our attention to the topics of resource management and skill caps. In this installment, we’ll dissect our Cataclysm rotation mechanics and see how well they adhere to the ideas presented in parts I and II.
The pacing of our rotation has been a roller coaster this expansion even though we’re barely a quarter of the way through it. During beta we were introduced to the new Holy Power system, powered by a version of Crusader Strike (CS) that had a 4.5-second cooldown. The new rotation went over like a lead brick. You could pin the blame on a number of sources – thematic objections, resistance to change, or just baseless QQ – but the nail in the coffin was the change in tempo. 969, for all its faults, had a decent tempo. There was something to cast every GCD, and the cycle time was short and snappy (6 seconds with a heavy hitter every other GCD).
The beta rotation had none of that. With only a limited number of long-cooldown fillers to complement CS, we ended up with a significant number of empty GCDs, often in pairs, leading to an unevenness that felt jarring. Worse yet, tying Shield of the Righteous (SotR) to Holy Power ballooned the cycle time to a whopping 12.5 seconds. Of all the criticisms of the new system, these two were probably the loudest and most frequent. People didn’t like empty GCDs, and liked waiting 13 seconds to fire off their heavy hitter even less. In the end, these two tempo-related issues were what doomed the first beta incarnation.
The developers’ response was to up the tempo for 4.0 by dropping CS to a 3-second cooldown. This tightened up the rotation, reducing the cycle time to 9 seconds and all but eliminating empty GCDs. That satisfied the majority of the detractors, though it earned the rotation the moniker “939” – a sarcastic joke that despite the dev’s intent to make our rotation more interesting, we had ended up with more of the same.
The infamous “bugfix” in 4.0.6 dropped the tempo once again by reducing Holy Power income due to missed CS casts, re-introducing empty GCDs and increasing the effective cooldown on SotR from 9 seconds to 12-15. This was arguably worse than the beta implementation simply because long strings of parries could completely lock you out of SotR.
Finally, patch 4.1 added Holy Power generation to Grand Crusader procs, an idea with roots as far back as beta, and modified Sacred Duty so that it wasn’t a DPS loss to take advantage of those procs. The extra Holy Power generation shifted the tempo once again; now the cycle time could drop as low as 6 seconds, bringing the average to somewhere around 8 or 9 seconds. In addition, it eliminated most of the empty GCDs the 4.0.6 changes introduced.
In my opinion, the current 4.1 tempo is acceptable. The occasional CS-GrCr-CS-SotR sequence keeps it feeling snappy enough to offset the occasional avoidance streak. While we still have an isolated empty GCD once in a while, it’s a fairly rare occurrence even without using Consecration or Holy Wrath as backup fillers. So while tempo has been one of our rotation’s weak points so far this expansion, I feel like it’s in a much better place right now.
We’ve come a long way since Wrath in this category. 969 was arguably the least interactive rotation of all time. It had no proc mechanics to react to and no significant choices to make. Once you slipped into the rhythm, you couldn’t easily fall out of it because the next spell was the only ability off of cooldown. It didn’t matter whether you wanted single-target or AoE damage, because the rotation didn’t change. While there are a lot of players that enjoyed the “fire-and-forget” play style (myself included, it made raid leading a lot easier), it made our class one of the easiest to play and earned us a reputation as “easy mode tanks.” There’s no doubt that the spec is better off without that stigma.
The introduction of Holy Power was the first of several steps designed to give us an injection of interactivity. Multiple finisher options meant that in addition to having to ask ourselves “Do I have 3 holy power yet,” we also had to consider how to use it. We also gained two procs through talents, Grand Crusader and Sacred Duty. Unfortunately, the tuning in 4.0-4.06 was such that we basically ignored Grand Crusader and Sacred Duty. There was no advantage to be gained by prioritizing Grand Crusader procs, and waiting on Holy Power to fish for Sacred Duty procs was similarly unwise. So despite having the illusion of a lot of interactivity, Holy Power gain and expenditure was really all we had to consider.
The 4.1 changes to Grand Crusader and Sacred Duty solved half of this problem. Now we have a distinct incentive to take advantage of Grand Crusader procs (for the extra Holy Power), and we’re not penalized by Sacred Duty for doing so. And in practice, there’s a surprisingly large number of situations where using a Grand Crusader proc immediately isn’t the best choice, which is great – it means it’s not a button you mindlessly smash whenever the flashy in-game power aura lights up. That makes it even more interactive, because you have to consider the current Holy Power situation and react accordingly. So 4.1 gets a big thumbs up for that.
However, despite the fact that seeing lots of SotR crits is a lot of fun, Sacred Duty is basically just a passive damage boost. It rewards you for following the rotation and using Avenger’s Shield and Judgement appropriately, but we’d do that without the talent anyway. And we don’t make any significant decisions about what to cast based on whether SD is active – at best doing so gains you a little under 1% DPS, which is small enough to be lost in the noise for most players. It’s really a shame – the change to SD was absolutely necessary to make its Grand Crusader an interesting talent, but in the process SD basically got thrown under the bus.
In conclusion, the level of interactivity in our current rotation is reasonable. It’s not quite at the level of the Warrior rotation, which has the additional complications of applying and maintaining both boss debuffs and bleeding excess rage with Heroic Strike. But it works, and it’s a lot less boring to play now than it has been in earlier patches. I like that I’m finally excited to see Grand Crusader procs. But there’s still room for improvement; I would love to see a redesign of Sacred Duty that made it an interesting and interactive talent.
The 969 rotation was centered around one resource: cooldowns. There really was nothing else to it, since mana was made irrelevant by design. As such, it’s hard to argue that the shift to three resources – Holy Power, cooldowns, and mana – could be anything but an improvement.
However, Holy Power is a peculiar resource. It has its similarities to Combo Points, except that we have fewer of them and fewer ways to spend them. Since there’s no overflow, we’re encouraged to use Holy Power immediately rather than pool it like a Rogue might with Energy. And since we’re designed to use it 3-at-a-time, we aren’t encouraged to use it piecemeal like Death Knight runes.
When you get right down to it, Holy Power is actually just a cooldown mechanic. Since it’s contingent on hit/exp and procs it’s a variable cooldown mechanic, but in practice, it’s a mechanic that puts Inq, SotR, and to a lesser extent Word of Glory on a shared cooldown of undetermined length based on a few die rolls. That thought is a little disappointing, because it means we’re still a two-resource, cooldowns-and-mana class. And mana, which has mostly served as a valve for excessive Consecration usage, can often be ignored if you skip Consecration and Holy Wrath. Which suggests we’re still basically a cooldown-limited class after all.
Unfortunately, Holy Power just isn’t a very deep mechanic. There may be a few cases where a 1- or 2-point WoG or Inq are worth using, but they’re pretty rare and fall outside the default single-target or AoE rotation. The vast majority of our HP expenditure is in 3-point SotRs, WoGs, and Inquisitions. In fact, the most “resource-y” aspect of it is that we occasionally have to make decisions about using our stockpile before taking advantage of procs to prevent wasting Holy Power generation via overflow.
So we’re still a bit lacking in the resource department. Holy Power may be shiny and new, but it’s not as interesting as it could be. That’s not to say it’s a bad resource mechanic any more than cooldowns are a bad mechanic – you could even argue that a semi-random cooldown mechanic is sort of neat. It’s just not that different than what we already had.
An implementation that turned Holy Power into a more granular resource, where we could efficiently spend smaller amounts or pool them to create combinations, would give the mechanic a lot more depth and make it more interesting to manage. That type of overhaul is a pretty huge undertaking though, so I wouldn’t expect to see anything like that until the next expansion at the earliest.
High Skill Cap
The “skill cap” of our rotation has always been pretty low. In Burning Crusade we literally had more GCDs than spells to cast, and in Wrath we had a rotation that could be executed with a single macro. So there were high hopes that the Cataclysm rotation built around Holy Power would finally give players a chance to demonstrate their skill in some measurable, observable way.
That was not to be, unfortunately. So far, none of the incarnations of 939 have had much variation with skill. Hitting CS every 3 seconds isn’t a particularly challenging task, and choosing the “best” of 3 fillers/finishers for the alternate GCDs isn’t much harder. The problem is that CS hits too hard, which is very evident if you look at a breakdown of our damage sources. CS can account for ~30% of our damage and SotR for another ~15%. Together, that’s well over half of the “active” DPS we put out (i.e. if we ignore passive sources like SoT and Censure). That makes filler choice much less important, so much so that hitting fillers at random is almost as good as doing it optimally.
4.1 has helped a bit in that regard, since prioritizing AS and reacting to Grand Crusader procs properly is now at least a clear DPS increase. But that increase is still only a few percent, which is small enough to be hard to detect. There’s no built-in mechanic that rewards an attentive and skilled player by more than that small margin, which means the skill cap is pretty low. Put another way, if you “screw up” the rotation by missing a Grand Crusader proc, you’re not penalized very heavily for it because Judgement is almost as good.
There are a few ways to fix this, but none of them are easy. If Avenger’s Shield hit twice as hard as it does now, you’d be penalized much more for missing Grand Crusader procs. However, that could undermine the Holy Power system entirely by making SotR an afterthought. And there’s also the PvP balance issues to consider. If CS or SotR were nerfed heavily and AS/Judgement buffed some, then pushing them back wouldn’t be as painful and fillers would be more attractive. This actively undermines the Holy Power system, unfortunately, and forces a re-tuning of Hammer of the Righteous.
The best solution might be to revert to a 4.5-second Crusader Strike. That frees up more room for fillers and reduces the representation of Crusader Strike. We’d have to be given more fillers to put in those slots, of course, but with an appropriate amount of fillers and extra Holy Power from other sources (Grand Crusader for example), it could be made to work smoothly without ruining the tempo. The Retribution rotation works in a very similar way, and it doesn’t feel slow or boring to me at all.
Tempo: B+, not as fast-paced as a warrior, but still lively enough to be interesting
Interactivity: B, better than it has been, but SD could still use some love
Resource Management: C, Holy Power is neat, but it’s too shallow to warrant a better grade
High Skill Cap: C-, better than ever before, but still too low. At least we can’t macro it like 969.
All in all, our rotation isn’t that bad right now. We’ve been in far worse situations in the past. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement, which is why we didn’t earn any A’s. A few tweaks to Sacred Duty that bumped up the tempo, interactivity, and skill cap would be enough to get us there though. I’m not sure that there’s much to be done about our resource management without a significant overhaul to the system, which would affect Ret and Holy. So we’re probably stuck with that grade for the time being.
One option that hasn’t been explored much is a CS-replacement strategy. The logic is as follows: if we don’t like that every other cast is CS but we also don’t want to undermine Holy Power or SotR, what if we replace some of those CS casts with something else? A proc which let us use a different spell in place of CS would vary the rotation a bit, add some interactivity, and raise the skill cap a bit more. The new ability could hit fairly hard, and CS damage could be reduced to compensate. It would have to share a cooldown with CS, however, to prevent it from being slipped into filler slots the way we do with Grand Crusader procs.
There are a number of code-related issues to address – Blizzard would need to add another Holy Power generation spell that shares a cooldown with CS and HotR, and only becomes available after a given proc event (melee crit maybe). Maybe you could skip coding a new spell by creating an Art-of-War-style implementation that tacks HP on to another spell (say, Exorcism), but you’d still have to put CS on cooldown when you use it. I’m not sure how easily these practical hurdles are to overcome on their end.
However, there’s a much simpler solution because we have a spell that fits all of our criteria: Hammer of the Righteous. It already shares a cooldown with CS, it already grants Holy Power, and it would require very little (if any) new code. All they’d need to do is add a simple aura that buffs HotR damage for 3-4 seconds after a proc. For example, redesign Sacred Duty to read “Chance on hit to increase the physical damage dealt by your HotR by 400% for 3 seconds” (or whatever tuning required to make it hit much harder than CS).
There are a number of things to like about this idea. It increases the tempo slightly by giving us another proc to watch and by varying our 3-second CS death march, and adds more interactivity for the same reasons. And while it doesn’t really address resource concerns, with proper tuning it could significantly raise the skill cap – players could show off their skill by efficient CS replacement in a very similar fashion to skilled warriors making the most efficient use of their Sword & Board procs.
That’s just one idea, though I’m sure there are many others. Feel free to make your own suggestions or proposals in the comments section – the more minds we have thinking about how to make our rotation more interesting, the more likely we are to stumble across something really good.