Monday, March 3, 2008

Entry 3 - Grouping as Affliction

I'm a lock who absolutely loves grouping. I love doing dungeon crawls, love raiding (when I have time), and generally enjoy the dynamics of a group encounter more than the solo stuff. Because let's be honest, locks DESTROY solo PVE. It's nice to have a real challenge once in a while, and group battles are some of the surefire ways of getting your fix of ragnarok-inducing mayhem.

There's one problem with group combat though, one tiny, nagging little detail that annoys me more than a paladin on his third health bar: trash pulls. In any group situation, you will most likely be asked to perform some kind of CC function (and if you're any good at it, you may actually volunteer to do so rather than trust the shifty-eyed rogue who hasn't said a damn thing since group invites went out) in addition to simply blowing stuff up good. That's fine, you have your trusty Seduce macro that tells your pocket hottie to keep one of the bad things occupied, no sweat. This article isn't about managing Seduce. It's about smashing face.

So you're grouped up, everyone is buffed and ready to go, the healer's soul blissfully stored inside the phylactery---er, soul stone in your pocket, and the tank has dutifully marked up all the targets. Kill order is skull-x-diamond-square, or using more evocative imagery, main tank'd baddie 1, baddie 2, then the sap'd baddie, and finally the ice-trapped one.

Your party consists of a feral tank, a resto shaman, a rogue of ill repute, a hunter who feeds his pet with dead gnomes, and you, spectacular avatar of darkness that you are. How do you intend on dishing out the pain?

In most solo situations, the correct answer would be to load up as many targets in sight with everything in your arsenal (an over-dramatization, of course; warlocks are so powerful that a mere three DOTS is usually sufficient), and laugh as they crumble to dust at your feet. That's not going to fly in this situation.

As an Affliction warlock whose greatest joy (and power) is his DOTs, this can be a bitter pill to swallow, but the truth of the matter is that you are less effective when you are loading up your group targets with tons of damage over time spells, simply for the reason that they will not live long enough for those spells to run their full duration.

Bear in mind, this is generally only true in the 5-mans, normal or heroic, but heroics less so. There are still a few mobs that deserve the full assortment of your pain clocks, such as the fungal giants in Steamvaults, or the Fel Annihilators in Shadow Labyrinth. But most pulls are going to be multi-target pulls, and you can thank your lucky stars that those pulls don't consist of multiple Fel Annihilators. Most mobs under focus fire will not last longer than ten to fifteen seconds.

The most effective solution, I've found, is simply to bite the bullet and revert to a more direct-damage role, as a shadowbolt spammer. There are other blogs than this where more talented writers than I have dissected the numbers associated with this rotation, but let me summarize it for you: the 2.5 second cast time of shadowbolt will deliver nearly the same total damage as a full run of Unstable Affliction, in about a tenth of the time. Spamming shadowbolts will help your group take down focus fire'd mobs faster than a full rotation of DOTs will.

That does not mean all you are supposed to do is stand there spamming though. Oh no. There are at least TWO other things you should be doing while keeping the black pain flowing. First off, you need to manage the proper debuff on your intended target, and second is to maintain CC on whatever mob has been marked for you. In the group composition above, with you being the only offensive spellcaster in the group, you don't have to think about the cumulative effects of either Curse of Shadows or Curse of Elements. There's just you, so the obvious choice is Curse of Shadows. There are some Locks I've run with who attest that even dropping Curse of Shadows on your target is a waste of a global cooldown, and in some cases (e.g. when your group absolutely outgears the instance) that is true. But in most situations, Curse of Shadows is a great opener for several reasons.

First of all, the threat produced by landing a CoS on a target is low, low enough that you won't take aggro from the tank on the pull. Because it does nothing until your first shadowbolt lands, you are effectively delaying 10% additional damage until the tank has had time to build up a threat buffer. That, my friends, is what helps keep happy locks alive. Maybe even more important than CoS on the main target is having CoS on your Seduce target. There is nothing more annoying than having Seduce resisted multiple times, and a single application of CoS as your pet is finishing up the cast can mean all the difference between a Happy Pull and a Sad Pull.

If you'll allow me to theorycraft for a bit, let's imagine the time line of a typical 5-mob encounter. All targets have been marked accordingly, and you've been left with a single humanoid to CC with your succubus. At this point I've selected the CC mob and am simply waiting for the tank to do his thing.

Tank fires off his shot. I quickly hit my seduce macro key, and the succubus, since she was likely out of range, begins running towards the CC target to set up the seduce channel. I am running forward as well, because I want to get in range to cast CoS. The succubus stops and begins casting, I drop CoS, and half a second later the mob has those lovely hearts fluttering out of their soon-to-be-detached head.

I grab the tank's target (/assist Mr. Tank macros work great for this), drop CoS, and then, depending on my sentiments, I may drop Corruption on him too before laying on the Shadowbolts.

But wait, you exclaim, why bother with Corruption? Didn't we establish that the sea-monkey-esque lifespans of these mobs makes DOTs a moot point? Well, yes, for the most part, but Corruption does something that the other DOTs don't: it enables Nightfall, and Nightfall = more Shadowbolts.

Rank 1 Corruption works just as well as the highest rank Corruption in your arsenal for this purpose. Every tick has a chance at sending you into Shadow Trance, which means something is going to eat an instant-cast shadowbolt. Rank 1 is also more mana efficient, and can be dropped on off-tanked targets with almost zero risk of drawing aggro. The tank should be outputting at least enough threat to keep the OT'ed targets off your healer, who will be outputting more global threat than the pitiful damage from rank 1 Corruption.

More Corruption ticks mean more potential Nightfall procs, which makes you a happy warlock, but be warned: even the weakest corruption tick is still enough to break all forms of CC except Fear/Cyclone/Mind Control, so be absolutely sure that your group can handle having one mob immune to most crowd control for the duration of the DOT. If you're not certain, ignore the OT'ed target until it's time to lay into it. You never know when you may need to lock it down.

Beyond the 5-mans, I think you'll find that most mobs can survive long enough to make a heavier DOT commitment more worthwhile. The Skeletal horses in the Karazhan stables, for instance, have a good chunk of hit points that are far more conducive to some serious DOTing, in addition to your shadowbolt spam. Just feel things out; the whole point of this post was to try and show less seasoned Warlocks that, sometimes, it's better to think beyond the basic DOT.

Aren't we splitting hairs a little here though? We're talking 5-man dungeon trash, why would you care about optimal single-target DPS?

Because you're a warlock. For God's sake start acting like the power-crazed shadow caster you're supposed to be and rock that DPS chart.

Seriously though, it's important to understand this because wasting time on a full cadre of DOTs not only kills your mana efficiency, but you are actually gimping your DPS. The whole point here is speed, and as an Affliction lock that isn't exactly your strong suit. Better tailored to burst damage are Felguard talent specs, or the intimidating 0/21/40. That last one in particular can be absolutely crazy, since you basically spam shadowbolts all the time, trash mobs or boss fights, and I hear the damage is disgusting.

When it comes to Boss fights, Affliction really shines. The combination of multiple, powerful DOTs (one of which returns a nice chunk of HP every couple of seconds), Dark Pact/Lifetap, and a steady stream of shadowbolts usually means you'll be threat-capped more often than not. I've actually found that, as my spell damage bonus rose closer to the 1000 point mark, I actually had to start dropping spells from my rotation because I was building threat too fast. Work with your tank, get a good threat meter, and watch it carefully. If you outgear your tank (either with sheer firepower, or more +spell hit than he has +hit), you will be climbing that threat list far more consistently than he can keep up with.

If you do find yourself dangerously close to pulling aggro (Omen's lovely red alarm glow really helps), you've got a decision to make. First, check the timers on the DOTs you have up on the boss. You have to decide whether simply stopping Shadowbolt casts is going to be enough to let the tank pull ahead. Most of the time, especially if you've specced into Improved Drain Soul or you've got a Blessing of Sanctuary on you, you'll be hard pressed to pull aggro from DOTs alone. But in some cases, certainly if your amplified Curse of Doom is about to go off, you're much better off just hitting Soul Shatter and playing it safe.

On exceptionally long fights, it can make sense to preemptively Soul Shatter because it allows you to crank out the DPS faster than you would normally, but the three minute cooldown is highly prohibitive in this regard. It's very likely that if you are putting out enough damage to warrant Soul Shattering early in the fight, you vastly outgear the threat generation capabilities of your tank, and you will definitely need it again before those three minutes are up. In that case, it's probably better to tone down your spell rotation and try to work within the limits of your tank's TPS, leaving Soul Shatter for that moment where you get two unlucky crits in a row, or CoD blows just as you approach 100% of the tank's threat.

On most boss fights, the best opener is almost always an Amplified Curse of Doom, right after you hit your trinkets and have maxed out your +spell damage. The problem with Curse of Doom is that its threat is an absolute spike, versus the more gradual curve of Curse of Agony. On some fights, such as against Blackheart the Inciter or anyone else who resets their aggro table periodically, Curse of Doom can get you in a lot of trouble if it blows right after a threat wipe. Very few tanks are going to be able to crank out enough threat to save your sorry behind if your CoD crit, and you run the risk of getting the healers in trouble as they struggle to keep you alive. In fights of that nature, it's almost better to run with Curse of Agony and take a more gradual approach to damage.

Of course, there's also those few times, those oh so rare but oh so memorable times, when you will delight your group by spawning a Doomguard right after your CoD kills the boss. Yes, this has happened to me before. On Omor the Unscarred in Heroic Hellfire Ramparts, our group had been struggling with the boss through two wipes. On our third attempt, we managed to beat him down fast enough that he was below 10% before our tank finally bit it, and he started taking us out one by one. He dropped me sitting at 2%, leaving just the hunter up, when all of a sudden Curse of Doom detonated, dealing that last 2% of damage. Our cheers where quickly replaced by cries of "WTF IS THAT?!" as a Doomguard came charging out of Omor's smoking corpse and proceeded to crush the lone remaining hunter.

Hilarity ensued. By the time we'd all rezzed and run back, the Doomguard was gone, and we were free to loot. Remember, that caveat on the tooltip isn't just there for looks. Make sure you're group is ready for the potential surprise.

Depending on the length of the fight, it may be in your interests to refresh Curse of Doom once it's gone off the first time, or it may be a better plan to put up Curse of Shadows/Curse of Agony/Curse of Elements, depending on the party make-up. With multiple warlocks, it's always best to let whoever has invested in the improved curse to keep it up, so communicate that amongst yourselves and maximize your cross-functionality. Since it's often impossible to gauge the effectiveness of having Curse of Shadows/Elements up accurately in a PUG, I go by this simple rule of thumb: if two or more party members can benefit from the bonus to either Shadow/Arcane or Fire/Ice, go with the debuff. If it's just you, CoA is probably a better choice.

Why CoD over CoA? I've asked myself this question, and though the damage is actually pretty similar, CoD has a few intangibles going for it that tip the scales in its favor. First of all, it can crit, and whooboy will you know if it does. The screen lights up with huge yellow numbers and the boss, if you didn't pull aggro right then, starts eyeing you with increased vitriol. Second, CoD ticks away for a full minute, versus the 24 seconds of CoA. This means you don't have to refresh it, which means you have at least one more GCD that can be dedicated to Shadowbolts.

Warlocks share some of the same spell theory that shadow priests do; Affliction locks even more so. The key to maximizing DPS on a boss fight is properly refreshing your DOTs, making sure not to overwrite one before it's finished its damage sequence. The reason behind that is the "ticks" of damage; each DOT deals damage periodically, divided along the length of the spell. The last tick always occurs on the last second of the spell. If you refresh the DOT before that last tick has occurred, you are increasing the gap between the previous tick of the old DOT, and the first tick of the new one. The gap can be as long as six seconds in some cases, and that's terrible for your DPS.

It's better to let a DOT expire completely before one gets refreshed. With some of our DOTs, like Unstable Affliction, the cast time should be taken into account when watching the last few seconds of the spell tick away. I try to time it so that my UA finishes casting just as the current UA wears off, catching it just after the debuff actually vanishes. This assures me that I am not overwriting the last tick and getting the most for my mana investment. The instant-cast DOTs are a little easier to manage, as you can throw one back up as soon as you see it drop off. The rest of your time between refreshing DOTs should be spent Shadowbolting if you can stand still long enough to finish the cast. Take advantage of your instant cast DOTs by refreshing them as you reposition, since they can all be cast while running.

One nuance of Affliction that is sometimes hard to get a handle on is our mana management. Everyone is familiar with the longevity granted by Dark Pact when used in conjunction with the other staple, Lifetap. No Affliction warlock should ever find themselves out of mana for very long. My preference is almost always to DP back to full once I've finished two or three DOT rotations; it only takes two Pacts to drain my Imp down to the triple digits. I recommend Pacting early because it gives your Imp time to regenerate his mana, and bless the little bugger, he's usually ready to go again within twenty to thirty seconds. Remember to bring your imp out of phase shift during group buffs so that he can benefit from an Arcane Brilliance or Blessing of Wisdom. If you have any spare Scrolls of Spirit, they aren't a bad buff to throw up yourself if your group is short a paladin.

Lifetap is a little trickier, as it demands more micromanagement than Dark Pact does. Fire off a premature Dark Pact, and the worst thing that happens is you waste a global cooldown. With Lifetap, you are putting additional stress on your healers, or causing yourself excess damage by lifetapping when your mana hasn't drained sufficiently low enough to benefit from the full transfer. For the sake of your group, I recommend something like:

/y Lifetapping. Keep healing the other guy.
/cast Lifetap

This ensures your healers know that the drops in your HP aren't due to some wayward mob, and can respond accordingly with a HoT, or wait until there's a lull on the tank to fire off a proper heal. Affliction warlocks are mostly self-sustaining; between Siphon Life and Drain Life, we can usually recoup all the life lost to lifetap quickly and without any assistance from the party healer. Keeping up a full cadre of Affliction effects on the target helps ensure your Drain Life is receiving the full bonus from Soul Siphon.

The last bit of advice I will try cramming into this entry has to do with trinket use. Any caster worth his or her salt will almost certainly have a spell damage on-use trinket, which provides a temporary boost in firepower (usually on a 2 min cooldown, sometimes sharing a CD with your other trinket). This can be wonderful during boss fights because it provides an appreciative boost to DPS. You could argue that it tends to help Warlocks more than Mages simply because we can stack so many damage over time spells, each of which gets a significant boost out of the bonus. It certainly doesn't hurt shadowbolt either, and it makes Curse of Doom (especially amplified) a really BIG ticking time bomb. You have to be cautious, however. If, like most players, you pop your trinket at the beginning of a fight so that you can stack an amplified CoD on the target right at the start, you also run the risk of shooting right by your tank's threat level. CoD won't do it (yet...), but the rest of your empowered spells just might. Even though most of our spells are level-loaded when it comes to threat (meaning they generate threat evenly over time), it's always a good idea to let the tank get a few good hits in before you start casting. Let the threat build, pop your trinket, then unleash holy hell. You'll be able to toe the line on the threat much better, and it's less risky overall.

Popping a trinket early is still better than holding off though, as during long fights you'll usually be able to get double the mileage out of them, and on shorter fights your group is clearly geared enough for the encounter, making the bonus redundant.

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