It’s no secret to anyone who takes a few moments to check my achievements on the armory to be aware of the fact that I’m not a hardcore PvP player. I occasionally dabble in arena, and have spent a decent amount of time tearing through the opposite faction in battlegrounds as many classes and specs, and am about 3000 shy of 100,000 lifetime honorable kills… over the course of eight years. I’m not in danger of getting Gladiator anytime soon (though I came close in season 1) but I’ve killed my share of red names. I’ve also been modestly successful where I do take part, having over 60% win rate lifetime in all PvP venues… so I’m not terrible. My rating isn’t 2200, though, so I’m sure I’d be silenced in seconds if I made this post on the PvP forums.
If you enjoy the PvP game as hundreds of thousands of players do, and have played this game as long as I have, you may have noticed a trend since Vanilla. As you can see here and here, there has been plenty of official activity responding to the concerns of PvPers. I personally tweeted Ghostcrawler about burst and crowd control and received a response, saying they felt most burst damage potential was in an acceptable place. Perhaps the burst problems truly are just the outliers in Beast Mastery Hunters and Warriors. I’m not the most active in PvP related discussions as I find reasoning with people who just got embarrassed by X class to be impossible, but I do make occasional posts like the one 18 pages from the end of the comments (can’t link it directly, unfortunately) in response to the recent Dev Watercooler blog on Mists PvP.
Keep in mind that the post you are reading is not about PvP balance. The examples I use below are not intended as calls for nerfs for X class or Y spec or Z team composition. This post is about the overarching design philosophy surrounding the PvP environment, summarized very briefly by my response to the blog above. As much as I dislike it, this post will also contain the words “I think” and “I feel” and “I believe” quite frequently, since PvP balance is a completely different animal than PvE balance and being objective about it is much more difficult.
World of Warcraft PvP is more balanced than you think.
Despite my focus not being balance, I feel I have to say a few words about it regardless. Perfect balance simply is not possible. Your favored spec, however, isn’t as bad as you might think it is, and what can historically be considered “overpowered” specs are not the norm – they are the outliers. The example most fresh in people’s memories might be Subtlety Rogues in season 11. Yeah, your class and spec were probably worse off than Subtlety Rogues… but compared to most of the rest, you surely fared a lot better. The PvP landscape can change significantly with small adjustments, even ones made to a class that you aren’t playing. A nerf to Restoration Shamans very well could result in an unchanged Enhancement spec’s representation going up significantly.
Where did the opportunity cost go?
From a day and age where diminishing returns hadn’t been added yet, Sap and Polymorph lasted their full duration, and honor points did not exist, to today’s game where PvP matches are almost like timed games of chess where teams trade cooldowns and coordinate offensive and defensive abilities until one side makes a mistake or runs out, the PvP game and crowd control has changed a lot. While some changes were for the better, I feel the majority haven’t been.
Time for some history.
In vanilla, control was very limited compared to Cataclysm and Mists. I’ll list literally everything that was available to control another player here:
Druid – Entangling Roots, Bash, Pounce, Improved Starfire.
Entangling Roots had a chance to break on its own damage. Bash lasted for 4 sec (or 5 with a 2 talent point investment) and Pounce lasted for 3 sec., required stealth as it does today, and required you to be behind the target. Improved Starfire gave a 15% chance on successful Starfire hit to stun the target for 3 seconds, and was only available to Balance.
Shaman – Earth Shock, Frost Shock, Earthbind Totem.
Earth Shock originally interrupted the target for 2 sec. Frost Shock and Earthbind Totem worked as they do today. Nothing at all caused complete loss of control of your character. Earthbind Totem was one of the few effects that applied to more than one enemy.
Paladin – Hammer of Justice, Repentence
Hammer of Justice was originally 5 seconds, dispellable. Repentence was originally a short range 6 second gouge-like ability available to Protection only, and was later transferred to Retribution.
Hunter – Concussive Shot, Wing Clip, Counterattack, Wyvern Sting, Ice Trap, Frost Trap
Concussive Shot acted similar to how it does now, but its duration was shorter than its cooldown, and Marksmanship could talent it to occasionally stun the target. Wing Clip was a snare that required melee range, and could be talented by Survival to occasionally root the target in place. Counterattack required the Hunter to parry an attack and was a deep Survival talent, rooting the target in place for 5 seconds. Wyvern Sting was added for Survival in patch 1.7, had a cast time, lasted for 8 seconds, and could not be used in combat. Traps could not be used in combat. Ice Trap was one of only a couple abilities that could affect more than one target.
Warlock – Fear, Seduction, Death Coil, Aftermath, Curse of Exhaustion, Spell Lock
Warlocks were one of three truly powerful crowd control classes. Fear’s chance to break on damage was small, Death Coil was one of only a couple instant cast crowd controls, and Destruction and Affliction had access to snare effects, and Destruction had access to a talent that gave Rain of Fire, Hellfire, and Soul Fire a small chance to stun. Spell Lock probably put Warlocks a little over the top for this era.
Warrior – Charge stun, Intercept stun, Concussion Blow, Hamstring, Pummel, Intimidating Shout, Mace Specialization
Charge was not useable in combat, and only stunned for 1 second. Intercept had a 30 second cooldown and was only useable in Berserker Stance which increased damage taken, Concussion Blow was Protection only. Pummel was one of only two melee interrupts. Intimidating Shout was a rare multi-target CC, but the primary target broke out immediately on taking any damage. Mace Specialization was a significant “problem” here alongside The Unstoppable Force’s random stun.
Rogue – Cheap Shot, Kidney Shot, Blind, Crippling Poison, Kick, Gouge, Sap, Mace Specialization
The kings of CC having Cheap Shot and Kidney Shot on different diminishing returns. Sap required reagents that were expensive or time-consuming to acquire. Kick was one of only two melee interrupts. Gouge breaks on damage and has a large energy cost, Sap broke you out of stealth to use. Mace Specialization was not popular for Rogues, but saw some use for the random stuns.
Mage – Polymorph, Frost Nova, Counterspell, Cone of Cold, Frostbolt, Frostbite
Another class with a lot of control, Polymorph heals the target it’s cast on and has a cast time, Counterspell had a 30 second cooldown and could be talented to also apply a 4 second blanket silence, Frostbolt and Cone of Cold slowed their targets, Frostbite gave both spells a small chance to root the target in place.
Priest – Psychic Scream, Silence, Mind Control
Psychic Scream was one of only two crowd control effects in the game (excluding Tauren racial) that reliably worked on more than one target. Silence is Shadow-only, Mind Control was channeled after having a 2 second cast time. Shadow Priests were considered to have a lot of control.
Honestly, reading through that, it really sounds like there were a lot of ways to control your opponents, and for some classes there certainly were – namely Warriors, Rogues and Warlocks. My opinion is that there was an appropriate amount of crowd control in this era, but that it was not spread between classes evenly enough. Unfortunately (to me) crowd control did not get spread out a bit more, but instead proliferated.
I’m not going to list every CC effect available to every class currently, so I’ll just use two examples.
Frost Mage (Mists of Pandaria) – Polymorph, Frost Nova, Freeze, Counterspell, Cone of Cold, Frostbolt, Deep Freeze, Frozen Orb. Talent – Ring of Frost or Frostjaw or Ice Ward.
Polymorph, Frostbolt, Cone of Cold and Frost Nova remain effectively unchanged. Deep Freeze is a 5 second stun on a 30 second cooldown. Counterspell now has a free 4 second silence attached to it. Frozen Orb acts as an AoE slow with very high damage. Ring of Frost is a multi-target CC on a 30 second cooldown.
Elemental Shaman (Mists of Pandaria) – Frost Shock, Capacitor Totem, Earthbind Totem, Wind Shear, Thunderstorm, Hex, Unleash Frostbrand. Talents – Earthgrab Totem or Frozen Power. Pulverize from Primal Elementalist.
Even the spec that has among the highest opportunity costs or largest number of counters in its crowd control toolbox (minus Wind Shear) has done nothing but gain over the years. Frost Shock and Earthbind are effectively unchanged. Wind Shear replaced the interrupt effect of Earth Shock, making it easier to use. Thunderstorm and eventually its snare added. Hex, a target pacify on a 45 sec. cooldown added. Unleash Frostbrand’s undispellable 70% snare capability added. AoE root on a 30 second cooldown or single target root on a 5 second cooldown added as a talent choice. 4 second pet-based stun usable up to every 2.5 minutes, or twice in a 1 minute span every 5 minutes added as a possible talent choice.
Instead of evening the playing field by taking from the rich and giving to the poor, we instead have mass proliferation of CC.
There are some very good examples here of crowd control done right, though, and I’ll go over them.
Polymorph – had a 1.5 second cast time (1.7 now, but there were no haste effects back then) and heals the target. A cast time allows you to defend against it with an interrupt or line of sight. The fact that it heals the player affected also gives it a cost for using it. It was a little ahead of its time, having no cooldown, but certainly doesn’t feel overpowered in today’s game.
Gouge – has a very high energy cost at 45, and breaks on damage. Its cost made it an interesting decision to use. Rogue players will obviously disagree, but I am of the belief that crowd control effects should nearly always have a significant and immediate cost attached to them. The fact that you don’t want to Gouge unless you have to is why it’s such a well designed ability, and crowd control should follow this model much more often.
Some examples of how I might change existing abilities (please keep in mind this is not a “nerf Paladins” or “nerf Death Knights” post, and similar changes would need to be made for all classes):
Blinding Light – Also costs 3 Holy Power
Strangulate – Costs 2 runes based on spec – Frost or Death for Frost, Blood or Death for Blood, Unholy or Death for Unholy.
Predatory Strikes – Now causes 5 combo points to reduce the cast time of affected spells by 100%. Casting a spell consumes the combo points.
Vanilla certainly had other issues as well. Mace Specialization and other random stuns rewarded you for luck instead of skill, Fear felt like it never broke on damage, but for the most part, the opportunity cost associated with crowd control – and the total number of available crowd control effects across all classes – felt pretty good.
The Role of Instant Casts
Instant cast spells have changed wildly over this game’s 8-year lifetime. Vanilla had very few of them, and the few that did exist were situational, intentionally weak, or had prohibitive costs. Death Coil had a 3 minute cooldown. Fire Blast did half the damage of a Fireball and provided little additional benefit. Moonfire’s damage was pathetic. Shocks had a huge mana cost and so on. These were often simply abilities that were meant to be something you could cast while moving, as moving is supposed to hurt your throughput a lot. In a couple very rare cases, they were offset by extremely long cooldowns. They were mostly just there so you could at least do something instead of nothing. Fast forward 8 years and instant casts are how the game is played. CC chains are nearly always started with an instant cast of some kind, be it one of numerous stuns from almost every class, a blanket silence, a knockback, a Predatory Strikes Cyclone and so on. Instant cast damage is also the name of the game, with Pyroblasts and Ice Lances, Howling Blasts, a series of Hunter shots being chained together and numerous other procs like Mind Blasts or Mind Spikes, Lava Bursts and Fulminations causing spells to deal massive damage that weren’t the result of a cast bar.
While directly comparing the abilities of different classes isn’t generally the wisest choice, there are still some oddities in the game that make me scratch my head. An example (the same one I used in my response to the PvP blog) is Howling Blast. It has a one-second GCD, is a ranged attack, deals significant area damage, and can be talented to include a snare effect on all it hits. It is also on a rapidly renewing resource that can even be hastened by using a different ranged attack (Death Coil) effectively making their ranged damage spammable and uninterruptible. The best part is that it actually does comparable single target DPS to an Elemental Shaman’s Lightning Bolt, which has a two second cast time and shares a spell school with Wind Shear, Thunderstorm and Healing Surge…. Wait, what? Why is the much-easier-to-use-spell that belongs to what is supposed to be a melee spec so much better, despite being essentially a filler in PvP for both specs? The balance of risk vs. reward was, apparently, completely ignored here.
Where Crowd Control Went Wrong
It’s not so easy to nail down a specific period of time in which CC effects started to lose their associated costs, but some specific changes and additions definitely stick out. Predatory Strikes allowing the casting of instant Cyclone is one. Strangulate coming into existence along with the Death Knight class is another. Interrupts proliferating with the addition of Rebuke, Mind Freeze, Skull Bash, and being made easier for Shamans with the change of Wind Shock to Wind Shear is likely one of the largest contributors. While the cooldowns on basic interrupt abilities were increased in Mists, the addition of many other interrupt and silence effects (Spear Hand Strike’s silence mechanic, Fae Silence, Dragon Roar, Disrupting Shout) makes it feel as though we were left where we were at. The addition of a cooldown to magic dispels have left players in many CC effects for longer durations as well. The PvP game feels like one that could never be fun to a new or inexperienced player at all unless they are playing with consistent, hardcore teammates who know every other class as well as their own.
The issue here is that where control effects were once either rare or had a high cost associated with them, they are now common and cheap. For the vast majority of players in battlegrounds or mid level arena, there is no wrong time to use a crowd control effect. It is always a good thing to lock down your opponent in some way, and this is where I feel the disconnect is between players and Blizzard posters. Crowd control is always good. There is no bad time to crowd control someone. There are simply good times to use crowd control, great times to use crowd control, and amazing times to use crowd control. There is no bad time. Yes, I am fully aware as I stated above that high end PvP is similar to a fast paced chess match, where sides trade cooldowns and abilities until one messes up or runs out, but for the other 99% of the population, we’re never going to get to a point where we or our opponents run out. The nature of combat in random battlegrounds, world PvP, and even mid range arena just simply does not allow for the full cost of a crowd control effect used early to ever show up, as the situation has likely changed, reinforcements for one side or the other have likely arrived, or players have likely died by the time it would matter, meaning front-loading all of your powerful abilities (offensive, defensive, and control) is nearly always the right choice. Using them early and often is far, far superior to not using them at all.
There also seems to be some disconnect between Blizzard and players on the difficulty of chaining CC effects on someone. Following up a Fear with a Cyclone and following that up with a Mortal Coil is not a difficult task. It’s really quite easy to chain a bunch of crowd controls on a player, even for someone at my level – mid level at best. It’s even easier when the vast majority of crowd control effects are instant cast. Psychic Scream -> Psychic Horror -> Silence is not hard. Add in another player of almost any class or spec, and you can easily lock someone down for what feels like an eternity for very little effort because so many CC effects and interrupts are instant cast. Blanket silences are the worst offenders. So what’s stopping the enemy team from CCing you and preventing this? The fact that your team has other viable targets for CC as well.
This is why the cost associated with control effects needs to be much more immediate. A huge energy/damage cost (Gouge), a huge part of your CC budget spent (vanilla Hammer of Justice) or having significant opportunities to defend yourself (Capacitor Totem) or taking the caster out of the game as well (Mind Control) are the kinds of detriments crowd control needs to have. The best philosophy would be to be able to deal damage or crowd control or heal yourself…. not deal damage and crowd control and heal yourself. If pressing those CC buttons meant you’re invoking a significant DPS or HPS cost, players would spend more time able to control their character, and for a fun PvP game, that is a necessary goal. Even if this post is taken seriously by those I’d like to take it seriously, we’re not going to see any action in the immediate future. Changes like these are not mid-expansion types of changes. Higher costs on CC effects would result in less CC, but also player damage and healing going up, which would require nerfs to nearly every instant cast damage and healing ability in the game for balance to be maintained.
The CC war really is not fun. That’s what it comes down to in the end – a new player who might be interested in trying PvP will often quickly change their minds – especially casters and healers – when they find out they spend more time unable to do that while stunned than they do able to attack the enemy or heal their allies. With the gap between the best geared and freshly dinged 90s getting wider every expansion, it’s not surprising that the PvP game just doesn’t seem to appeal to as many as it used to.