Editorial: An In-Depth Analysis of Proposed Warrior Changes in World of Warcraft

Rage is all the rage in World of Warcraft these days.

Blizzard has begun to release their updated class previews for this fall’s expansion, Cataclysm. As Warriors are classically superior to all other classes, especially do-gooder paladins and wimpy magi, the topic for today’s discussion will be how Blizzard is about to RUIN THE WARRIOR CLASS ONCE AND FOR ALL. *cue maniacal laughter*

All Warcraft classes perform their functions via resource management. For healers and spellcasters, this is mana management. Use a big spell, run the risk of depleting your mana too soon. Spam too many small spells, run the risk of the same problem. Finding an efficient balance of both low- and high-mana spells in the proper order is key to maximizing utility from those spells. This is largely true of all RPG-type games. Consider the D&D action rules: you have a certain number of actions that can be performed in a turn, and the best use of those, including your associated feats or spells, is determined by encounter context.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, has always been a game subject to intense mathematical and statistical analysis called “theorycrafting.” Because it is a computer game, and therefore subject to rote and mechanical conventions of programming, savvy thinkers/players are capable of understanding (to a high degree) exactly how these conventions and rules work together to create the gameplay, and hypothesize the most efficient and economical methods of playing a class. This leaves dreadfully little room for innovation, as all top players will play with some variation of the same strategy. The depth one might expect to find in a more complex game, such as chess, is lacking.

Part of this is due to the aforementioned computerized game nature. The other part of it is due to an overall philosophy of game design: if you control the available “winning” strategies, then it is easy to balance the game around those strategies since playing outside those strategies is effectively “punished” in the form of a nerf.

An example: a particularly enterprising player discovers a novel way two of his abilities work together. By meticulously selecting gear so that certain stats are emphasized, picking up a few odd talent choices, in a certain limited area of the game that player can become dominant by using an unforeseen combination of skills, gear and talent choices. This causes the game to be unbalanced as, because the playstyle is emergent, class balancing developers did not take it in to consideration. But, this is not a small game played by isolated individuals. At least this player’s guild, if not her opponents or her readers on blogs and fora, will begin to copy this playstyle. Because articles like this one, the official Warcraft forums, and other sites like Tankspot or Elitist Jerks provide encyclopedias’ worth of WoW information, this isolated incident of innovation quickly becomes the “new norm,” requiring a rebalancing back to where the developers wanted it.

The general consensus among developers is “enjoy it while it is good, because it is going away soon.”

Come out and play!
Warriors! Come out and play!

However, some classes have mechanics which exacerbate this problem. The vast majority of WoW classes are easy to balance because they all work on the same resource system. Mages, Warlocks, Hunters, Priests, Paladins, two types of Druids and Shaman all use the mana system of resources.

Only the Death Knight, Rogue, Feral Druid and Warrior have different resource systems, and the Feral Druid copies note for note the systems of Warriors and Rogues. This makes, in effect, four* resource systems shared between ten classes.

*NB: Hunters are getting a new resource system in Cataclysm, and details are sparse on how it works.

Death Knights, being the newest class, have an interesting two-phase resource system. They have a static amount of “Runes,” two Frost, two Blood, and two Unholy, that renew on a regular “cooldown” after being used. The use of certain baseline abilities is done via combinations of runes, meaning that at the start of a fight, a Death Knight has instant access to most of her abilities. As the Death Knight expends Runes and attacks an opponent, a secondary resource known as Runic Power is built, allowing for more complex and powerful attacks as it builds. This allows a Death Knight player to play very strategically, to have pre-planned combinations of attacks ready to deploy as the conditions of the fight dictate.

Similarly, Rogues and cat-form Druids use Energy as a resource system, with a secondary resource system of “Combo Points.” Energy is a guage which starts at 100, is expended via basic attacks that build Combo Points, and refills based on a standard time coefficient modified by gear-based statistics. Because Energy refills at a regular rate not based on anything environmental, Rogues and cat-form Druids can also anticipate exactly what attacks will be available when. This allows for more strategic gameplay, with openers, building moves, and then finally, finishing moves that expend the previously-built Combo Points for large bursts of damage.

Bear-form Druids and Warriors, on the other hand, have Rage. A Rage bar starts at 0 (meaning no special attacks are possible) and then slowly fills as either of two conditions are met: the Warrior/Druid takes damage or deals damage. Talents in either the tank or DPS trees modify whether more Rage is gained from taking or dealing damage, respectively.

The downsides to this are obvious: Warriors/Druids are the only class that start off with zero resources and gain them over the course of a fight. While this means that they have effectively an unlimited resource, so do Rogues and Death Knights, although both Rogues and Death Knights start a fight off with at least some resources.

The kludge to fix this has always been to give Warriors and Druids an ability to generate free Rage that is not on the global cooldown. In practice, however, this becomes just another button to press for the sake of pressing it. No strategy is involved whatsoever with the choice to use Bloodrage. One simply does it, any time the ability is not on cooldown, because Rage matters.

To make matters worse, Rage scales on a parabolic curve. At low levels of gear, where not much damage is done and not much damage can be taken, Warriors are often resource-bankrupt, or Rage-starved. Admittedly, mana-based classes also suffer from low mana pools at this level.

At the beginning of endgame playing, however, Warriors and Druids are at a significant disadvantage. Our resource pools are lower, our resource gaining rate much slower, and consequently, our effectiveness quite hampered. However, simply increasing the rate at which Rage is gained (Rage normalization) proved to be disastrous during the start of The Burning Crusade. Likewise, buffs to Warrior/Druid abilities so that Rage starvation was less of an issue resulted in Warriors being overpowered when they had top-end gear, due to the way in which Rage scales. At high levels of gear in endgame content, Warrior/Druid tanks and DPS Warriors were in effective “unlimited Rage” situations, meaning that resource management was no longer a factor in playstyle, leading to imbalance. To further muddy the waters, a Warrior in excellent gear playing through old content would be hampered by being literally too good for the encounter. A Warrior/Druid tank in raid gear in a heroic 5-man dungeon, for instance, would be Rage-starved because she would not be taking enough damage due to the presence of too many powerful defensive stats on gear!

Many top Warrior bloggers, like WoW.com’s Matthew Rossi, as well as notable and noble Warrior forumites have said that the only solution is to fix the Rage mechanic once and for all. But a new wrinkle creeps in: if the Rage mechanic itself goes away, what distinguishes Warriors from being Rogues in plate armor, or Paladins without the holy goofiness?

Enter Blizzard’s first ham-handed suggestions. I do not write this in mere disgust, because these are just proposed design changes. I write instead hoping that Blizzard will take the pulse of community opinions, and veer from this course.

The Rage change as Blizzard has suggested it so far is a dumbed-down version of Energy. It lacks the principal strengths of Energy: predictability, secondary resources, and high starting amounts. It carries with it the same problems that plague the current version of Rage: spikiness, high-end gear will always be at infinite Rage, and the only way to generate instant Rage is by mashing pointless off-the-GCD buttons before every fight.

Dwarf Warrior
I am not sure what the story with this statute is, but it is awesome, just like Warriors can be.

Breaking it down, Warriors will gain a set amount of Rage with every normal swing. They will gain 50% of that amount with each off-hand Rage hit, meaning Fury Warriors will presumably gain Rage faster than Arms Warriors, which does not bode well for raiding Arms Warriors. Critical strikes will gain 200% of the base amount of Rage for that strike, meaning Warriors in high levels of gear will crit more often and have a fuller Rage bar more often.

This is problematic if the ideal is careful management of Rage so that not a drop is wasted. Saturating the Warrior with resources removes strategy and leads to imbalanced classes, which in turn brings ridiculous things like flat 10% damage penalties on the Fury 51-point talent. That Fury still tops the meters while laboring under a permanent handicap is telling that something is broken.

Tanking Warriors/Druids, on the other hand, will gain a set amount of Rage based on a multiplication factor by an unknown constant for damage taken, regardless of mitigating effects. This is a rather smart change: each enemy hit will generate a certain amount of Rage. Little hits will generate little Rage, and big hits big Rage.

The only problem with this is that non-melee bosses and monsters present permanent Rage problems to Rage-based tanks, forcing Warriors to once again dip into their ever-growing toolbox of abilities that generate free Rage for free Rage’s sake. No other class has to push buttons just to generate resources with no other tangible benefit.

Currently, the Warrior playstyle rewards high amounts of manual dexterity, fast reaction time to changing environmental conditions, and the ability to process several different visual sources of information at once and coordinate that with the aforementioned dexterity. I find it impossible to play a Warrior without the benefit of a specialized MMO gamepad and mouse, as well as several additional UI modifications to time my ability cooldowns and monitor my damage output for special processes (procs) that let me use my abilities. As such, Warriors (especially Arms and Protection Warriors) do not have set rotations so much as “ability priority lists” that are difficult to master and use effectively. This translates in to: good Warriors play their class competitively with all others, but there is a much steeper learning curve and greater penalties for mistakes for the Warrior than there are for other plate-based melee and tank classes. Ceteris paribus, a Warrior, Death Knight, and Paladin are roughly equal as melee DPS or tanks. But a well-geared, well-played Warrior is not necessarily as good as a well-geared, well-played Death Knight or Paladin due to the differences in class mechanics that make Death Knights and Paladins more forgiving of the occasional mistake.

To many in the Warrior community (myself included) this is a badge of honor and pride, because it has to be. Well-played and good Warriors make me smile for showing off what my preferred class can do in the hands of someone that enjoys the class. But from a long-term game development standpoint, it is bad to make a class so difficult and iconoclastic that it becomes an irrelevance for future balancing decisions.

Although some of the proposed Warrior changes, such as the elimination of the “on next swing” abilities Heroic Strike and Cleave, are genuinely excellent ideas that need to happen, much more is necessary to fix a class that, while not broken, is certainly more cumbersome than it needs to be. To that end, I suggest these things:

    1. Eliminate free Rage abilties — these blights upon the class make us push buttons for their own sake, rather than to achieve something in the game. Either provide a benefit to pressing these buttons (damage buffs, survivability buffs, etc.) or remove them and find some other way to give Warriors a starting amount of Rage.

    2. Make Rage management strategic — Blizzard has promised that Warriors will get a new ability that grants a bonus for a full rage bar, but this is counter-intuitive to the DPS warrior philosophy (though it will be welcome for tanks). Currently, and even with the buff, there is no incentive to forego using special abilities to build up a full Rage pool, and there will not be in Cataclysm either unless full Rage is a condition that will be unavoidable from Rage gain mechanics.

    3. Change the way the resource is built — as long as gear scaling affects how the resource is built (not merely the speed at which it is built, like Energy, or the total pool that exists, like Mana) class balance will always be done around hypothetically-best gear in the hands of top players, leaving us mere mortals in the dark.

    4. Remove ridiculous Stance penalties — damage tax for Defensive Stance needs to die in 2010. The way Battle Stance and Berserker Stance work now is great: improve on that.

    5. Fix the movement abilites — Juggernaut and Warbringer were necessary to provide Protection and Arms the mobility of Fury. But Fury’s Intercept ability is usesless compared against a Charge. Make Charge usable in all stances and in combat, and remove the need to drop a point for Juggernaut or Warbringer. Remove Intercept altogether. Keep Intervene because of its use on friendly targets, as part of the tank’s toolbox. Let talented Charges do things like break roots or stuns, so that they have the PVP utility people want, while keeping the baseline movement abilities the same for PVErs.

    6. Give warriors a secondary resource — if our closest relatives in the class world are Rogues and Death Knights, why do Warriors not have a secondary resource system to manage? Warrior damage is all physical, all the time. We have great situational abilities, but our class is always in danger of being too similar to other classes because we lack something unique and warrior-y to differentiate us. What I think needs to happen is that Warriors need a secondary resource (like DKs or rogues), something like “Willpower.” Warriors expend Willpower-based abilities (our strikes, shouts, etc.) that do moderate damage or provide a buff but cause high rage gain. Then, we burn off that rage with special moves like Overpower, Bloodthirst, Whirlwind, Execute or Devastate. Our rage starts at 0 and can go up to 100, but it can also go down to -100. If we are at 100, we get an “Enraged” buff. If we are -100, we get an “Exhausted” debuff, and have that scale between the two extremes. Therefore, there is a cost associated to over-expending Rage, but running out of Rage will not punish us by shutting us down completely. Willpower could regenerate at a regular rate like Death Knight Runes or Rogue Energy. That way, Fury could be a class based on stoking up lots of Rage and expending it for high damage. Arms could be based on carefully controlling Rage, gradually building it higher, until a “kill shot” was needed, and then massive burst could be unleashed (for both PvP and PvE utility). Protection would burn off Rage to keep up threat but use Willpower to avoid being Exhausted and losing survivability and threat.

Warriors are not a broken class; they continue to (and I suspect, always will) be well-represented in the end-game due to the dogged persistence of many Warriors at playing the class and the few unique buffs they provide. However, for such an important lore-based class to the game, in order to maintain longevity of the class and to entice new people to play it, substantial modifications are needed. Please, Blizzard, listen to your players.

0 comments

  1. “He could probably solve war and famine, but he likes WoW too much, so the world will have to die.”
    ~Lusipurr talking about Lane’s awesomeness

  2. I have already solved war and famine: hey, these swords can be remade into plowshares, this battlefield is arable land… we could grow food here, and then we can share the food!

    But when I suggested such a measure, the good people of the sovereign and glorious state of Texas called me a commie pinko hippie and threw rocks at me.

  3. Oh, I’m a mage, look at me! I’m Harry Frickin’ Potter! I wear robes and play with my wand. Pew pew pew pew pew oh what’s this I get my own Heroism/Bloodlust on top of being the favored class of one of the main game developers? Hey, I’d like a pet! Cool! A water elemental! Awesome! Oh, how about some of the highest DPS in the game, the strongest crowd-control abilities and virtually a guaranteed spot in any progression group. But what’s this? This mean man with the axe is spinning around and it hurts and that’s not fair. My pocket rogue should be able to disarm him so that I can get back to making with the pew pew pew.

    You mean those kind of mages? Screw ’em, staff-toting nancy boys.

  4. I swear that Blizzard is about 3 patches away from giving mages the ability to coat themselves in “Arcane Armor,” which increases their health and armor by 3000% and giving them the ability to put a persistent “Frost Blaze” on the ground around them which deals 3,000 Fire/Frost damage every second to all enemies in range. Then, all mages need to do is find an errant priest, shaman and druid and they’ve got a raid.

  5. Lane, you, sir, are wrong!!!!

    Granted, I haven’t seen WoW in person since the beta and that was my brother’s roommate riding some sort of flying thing across the world for an inordinate amount of time not doing anything or ever actually played WoW myself, but my man Ringthree lays it all out here: http://ringthree.blogspot.com/2010/04/you-got-your-rage-in-my-tp-you-got-your.html

    Blizzard is finally fixing their failed experiment in the mold Square-Enix blazed for them with Final Fantasy XI.

    In an unrelated matter, I can’t help but notice a lack of genocide humor on the podcast lately. I appreciate tasteless racist humor as much the next guy, but genocide is always better.