Legendaries — first aid for class balance?

Admin note: This post contains quite a few references to specific Beastmastery hunter talents. I have thrown in some Wowhead links, but if you want a more comprehensive picture of the talent table, check out the Icy Veins one here.

The latest development in Legion legendaries, reported by MMO-C as part of the most recent PTR build, is that now some of them will actually grant the wearer a talent from their spec’s talent table. For example, the new hunter legendary will grant Beastmasters the Dire Stable talent, a level 15 talent that increases focus generation while you have a Dire Beast active.

Well. Where to start?

I am not a theory crafter, so my take on this goes more to fundamentals than it does to actual numbers. But the first thing that occurs to me is this particular talent level has ever only had two choices for BM hunters — Way of the Cobra for single target fights and Dire Stable for multitarget fights. No one I know has ever selected the third talent in that row, Big Game Hunter, because it stinks and has stunk since it was introduced. It is a non-choice. So the new legendary effectively means BM hunters can have their cake and eat it too in this talent tier. It also means if you have the new legendary you have no other choices in this talent row, you will take Way of the Cobra. I am not saying this is a bad thing, just pointing out how it will play out.

The second effect this will have is to buff BM damage somewhat, at least for single target fights, because we will be generating extra focus. The effect on multitarget fights is less clear, I think, because Cobra Shot is not often used on those, so the extra damage may be moot. Number crunchers will undoubtedly play with various combos, including the desirability of using multiple Cobra Shots over Multishot for medium-size groups of targets.

Additionally, one of the basic complaints about BM hunter mechanics is that the player has zero control over focus generation — is completely dependent on auto-generation of this resource. With the exception of the really terrible talent Chimaera Shot, we have no power-generating shots, we are completely at the mercy of Blizz’s idea of how fast that critical factor should generate. One result of this early on was the clunky, start-and-stop nature of the rotation. It is still a problem, though most of us still playing the spec just grimly accept it after months of enduring it.

Dire Stable, while still not allowing control over focus generation, does increase the rate noticeably. So the fact that lucky winners of the new legendary will not have to choose between increased focus and increased single target damage will be nice, I suppose. I doubt if it will be a game changer, but it will be helpful.

But here’s the thing: Blizz is using legendaries to fix glaring problems with spec mechanics, problems that players identified months ago during alpha testing and have continued to point out ever since Legion went live. 

The most obvious and egregious flaw in this plan is — well, I hesitate to point out the obvious but here goes:

ONLY LUCKY PEOPLE GET TO HAVE THE FLAW FIXED.

What the hell, Blizz? If there is a mechanics problem with a spec glaring enough for even the most clueless dev to notice, shouldn’t the fix be available to all players? Why do you insist on making a lottery of everything? What is wrong in your brains? For the umpteenth time, Mr. Game Director Ion “I Am The Sole Arbiter of Fun” Hazzikostas, RNG is not fun except for the uber-lucky early winners. For all the rest of us who spend hours and days and months rolling the dice for that one piece of playstyle-changing gear, it is the furthest thing in the game from fun. Even when we finally get it — if we ever do — it is not a woohoo moment but rather a “oh thank god that is over” one.

Beyond the lunacy of basing spec mechanics fixes on pure luck, there is another aspect to this. It seems evident from WoD and Legion that Blizz is unable to adequately balance individual spec mechanics and numbers without ending up with obvious winners and losers — specs that are either overpowered or dismally puny performers. And when they have tried to fix glaring inequities the changes have frequently lurched from one extreme to the other. Everyone understands the class/spec balance and playstyle issues are complex. So why make them even more so by introducing additional factors?

Introducing a complicated artifact trait table made balancing specs more difficult by an order of magnitude. Introducing other gear — tier and legendaries — with significant spec-enhancing bonuses made it even more so.

If you are someone who is challenged when you are asked to bring microwave green beans to Thanksgiving dinner, it is almost certainly not a good idea to also volunteer to bring the turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Even though you hope it will help fix your green bean inadequacies, you are just setting yourself up for failure.

So, although I think the new legendary talents may help some specs in the near term,  using RNG gear to address known problems is a terrible way to do it. Not only is it a lazy approach, but in the long run it only serves to make the entire class/spec system more complex, more fragile, and consequently more prone to imbalance as a result of even tiny changes that can reverberate through the system in unexpected ways. Blizz should just stick to perfecting their green beans.

With that, I am out for the weekend.

For stat geeks

There is a lot on my plate in the real world today, so this will be an abbreviated post. But I want to give a plug to a hunter who provides an excellent service to the community. Delirium over at Thrill of the Wild does not post often, but when he does it is frequently to do a lot of math heavy lifting for the rest of us. His deep dives on hunter stats over the years have helped me a lot.

If you are a math whiz, you can follow his extensive spreadsheets and testing results, and use them to make calculations for your own hunter. But if you are “math challenged” like I am, you can skip over that part and just read his bottom lines, which are written in normal and useful language.

An ongoing project of his is to break out hunter stat conversions and ability formulas, for all hunter specs as well as for pets. It is updated with each new patch and relevant hotfix. His results are all based on extensive testing, not tooltips, so they may differ from some more popular sites. I encourage you, if you have the time, to check it out. It takes a bit of dedication to get into the charts, but you are well rewarded if you do so. I was especially interested in the ability formula tables, because they tell you which abilities are affected by the spec’s most important secondary stats such as mastery or haste. For example, if you are deciding which stats to enchant or gem for, or which talents will take advantage of your current stat build, these tables can help you.

Well that was fast

On the heels of my long rant last Thursday, about the idiocy of the pay-per-spec-change policy, we get a series of long and thoughtful blue posts from “Watcher” Hazzikostas on the subject. You can read them in full in the forum or the compiled responses here in MMO-C. But the bottom line is that the proposed policy has been reversed as of yesterday, spec changes will be free in Legion, no change to the current policy, except of course you will not be limited to two specs per class. Also, there will instead be a tougher policy on talent switching — more on that in a minute.

I have some wide-ranging thoughts on this development, but overall I am encouraged and optimistic about the way it was handled.

First, this is another in a series of rather remarkable design reverses in response to player comments. I don’t have a list of them all, but the ones that come to mind are the Water Strider and pets for MM hunters. I think this shows that Blizz did in fact learn some lessons from the debacle that was WoD. No, they don’t cave to every criticism of certain design mechanics, but they seem to be getting better at determining when something is potentially a major problem. Not insignificantly, they also are willing to reverse themselves if they decide that the player criticisms are justified. This is something they were incapable of during the WoD beta and throughout the first part of the expansion. They seem to have rediscovered how to be flexible. (Sorry, I don’t buy the tinfoil hat theory that the initial spec changing cost was done solely to be able to look like good guys when they changed it, which they always intended to do — Blizz can be sneaky, but this would be a new low even for them.)

Second, I can see a certain maturing process at work with Watcher. (No, I am not trying to be condescending in noting this.) Although he is the current Big Dog in terms of player communications, he has seemed unwilling to put himself out there and engage with players in any meaningful way. In WoD his preferred mode of communication was the snarky comment, delivered so as to maximally demean whatever player concerns were at issue. He still seems reticent to engage with players on any kind of regular basis, but some of his most recent responses in forums have been detailed, thoughtful, and on an adult level of reasoning and explanation.

I found his collected responses to the spec-changing issue reasonable and fair. You can agree or disagree with the compromise solution Blizz arrived at, but there is no doubt that Watcher fully explained their reasoning and the basis for making the decision they did. After the nastiness of player communications in WoD, I am still pleasantly surprised when Blizz actually explains their deliberative process on some issues. I wish they would do it more, but that they do it at all is a huge improvement.

I for one appreciate being treated as a sentient, knowledgeable adult. It makes me much more receptive to grownup approaches like compromise.

Third, delving into the actual compromise worked out over the spec-changing issue, I find it to be reasonable. Do I love it? No, but I understand where Blizz is coming from, and after all the mark of a good compromise is that all sides are somewhat happy as well as somewhat unhappy.

For those who have not read the solution, it is that spec changing will be free, but talent changing will become more restrictive than it currently is. Though the final details are not yet worked out, basically you will only be able to change your talents if you are in a safe zone, defined as a place that gives you rest. (I am not sure if that means only sanctuary areas like class halls and sanctuary cities, or if any inn will do.) There will be a provision for some magic effect — crafted and presumably sold by Inscriptionists — to create a temporary sanctuary in raids/instances/field where those in the vicinity can switch talents. Of note, Watcher clearly indicated the intent is NOT for individuals to carry stacks of these magical widgets with them, rather that they be available to groups — though he did not elaborate much on that, so that is one of the details to be worked out I guess.

Blizz’s intent is to make choices actually count for something. After all, as they point out, you are not really making a choice if you can always have it all with a minuscule  effort. They believe they have put a lot of work into Legion’s talent tables for each class, and they want players to put some thought into their talent selections, realizing the trade-offs involved.

As I said, I can see their point. Currently, I do a fair amount of talent switching in raids, mainly involving Level 15 Posthaste versus Crouching Tiger Hidden Chimaera and Level 90 Glaive Toss versus Barrage. I change the Level 90 talents more frequently than I do the Level 15, mainly because it annoys me to not use Barrage on a single target or very small group — I feel like it is a waste of a talent to just have it sit there, even though I understand it means I can use more powerful shots more often. It’s a perception thing with me. So if I know there will not be big trash mobs in a fight, I change to GT.

Will I change talents so often in a raid if it means forcing a group effort similar to a warlock Summoning Portal in order to do it? No, I probably won’t, and I am sure there will be times when that frustrates me and makes me think I am not able to do my best. But in the big picture, it is preferable — at least to me — to chunking out gold every time I change specs.

But I think this most recent design reversal means that it is incumbent on Blizz to ensure Legion encounters are more balanced than they are now, so that there is less clear advantage to wholesale talent switching in raids and instances. Minor, yes, major, no. For example, there really should not be a series of encounters like the first two bosses in HFC, compounded by the hordes of trash mobs in between every boss, where the differences between AoE talents and single target talents are huge. Blizz will not do this, of course, we will just have to suck it up, but it would be the responsible design decision in light of this recent talent switching redesign.

I also think this compromise makes it important for Blizz to give us reasonable choices for each talent level. This means that each tier should have three equally viable choices for the “theme” for that tier, and this requires attention to detail in Blizz’s balancing process. More attention to detail than we have seen them capable of for the past couple of years. If our talent choices require us to make trade-offs, it seems only right that the same thing apply to Blizz’s design choices.

Still, I commend Blizz in general and Watcher in particular on their response to the spec-changing issue. Now, if we can talk a little about spec balancing and play styles…