Combat in Battle for Azeroth is…different.
I think there are a lot of factors in play, which we will discuss today, but first, I want to outline that much of what I will say is subjective. You may love the current state of combat, or hate it, but I think few of us would deny that something is definitely different about the way combat unfolds in BfA.
Item the First – Global Cooldown Changes
The GCD change was one of the earliest controversies of BfA. The change was implemented partially into Alpha testing, at which point it was roundly criticized.
The basic ideal behind the change is to reduce the prominence of spiky damage, by putting major DPS buffs and a few other abilities back onto the global cooldown, taking away the ability to hit them all at once that we have enjoyed for several expansions now.
The interesting thing about this is that it isn’t altogether new (many of these abilities were originally on the GCD and were taken off at various moments in time) but rather the odd selection of abilities placed back onto the GCD. During Alpha, nearly all gap-closers and movement abilities were GCD-locked, alongside DPS and throughput buffs, keeping only tank active mitigation and a few select other abilities off of the GCD. During alpha and beta phases, only a few mobility abilities were moved off the GCD, but many still remained locked until 8.1, at which point all mobility skills were put back as off-GCD.
That leaves us with just the addition of DPS buffs to the GCD. On some level, I can actually understand this – as a DH who played Momentum build during a good chunk of Legion, part of the strategy was popping Chaos Blades, Nemesis, and Metamorphosis during a big DPS phase, and using the combination of those buffs to quickly spike your burst DPS. In PvP, you could use it to finish a foe quickly, in PvE, it was great for add phases, especially when stacked with the Havoc artifact ability. So, in that way, I understand why it had to be done – making combat strategic and forcing a rotation of cooldowns or a staggered approach, delaying the full burst, is an interesting idea.
The problem is that during an 8.0 window where many of us were deeply dissatisfied with the game, we also had reduced haste due to rating requirement ramp-up, more abilities locked to a GCD that was hard to reduce to a satisfying level, and our mobility locked behind a GCD wall. All of this combined to make the launch window of BfA have much slower combat, often feeling like fighting through molasses compared to the fluidity we’re so used to from WoW. As an FFXIV player used to dealing with a 2.5 second GCD, it was less startling, but it still stood out sharply.
At this point in time, while I would argue Blizzard is closer to their ideal for the change, it still doesn’t feel great, and some classes feel it a lot more. On my Beast Mastery Hunter, for example, ramping up damage rapidly requires two GCDs, one for Bestial Wrath and the other for Aspect of the Wild, meaning there are a clumsy few seconds in many fights where gameplay just feels bad – I’m doing a solid overall amount of DPS, but I’m also spending 2-3 seconds at the start of a fight doing nothing other than activating buffs. Multiple specs have a similar awkward spot in their rotation where they have to juggle buffs.
Item the Second – Ability Pruning In Service of Expansion Gimmicks
Ability pruning has an interesting history in WoW. From Burning Crusade to Mists of Pandaria, every expansion has added new class abilities, with the early, 10 level expansion offering around 5 each, and the later, 5 level expansions offering 2-3. As the design space began to narrow, we got some excellently interesting abilities (priest Void Shift, druid Symbiosis, mage Alter Time) and also some duds, but overall, the addition of abilities was, I think, a net positive.
Having said that, I actually also cheered the initial pruning of Warlords of Draenor. It felt like a good time to do so, and the thought I had is that a single expansion with no new spells short of talents and the removal of old cruft on the classes meant we could then start adding more abilities with better thematic fit, design cohesion, and focus.
Instead, when Legion came out, we had some further pruning under the guise of spec identity, and instead gained a single new ability from the Artifact weapon, and that was about it. While I enjoyed Legion gameplay, it is fair to say that the pruning had started to go overboard. In many cases, it was removing shared spells or interesting crossovers (Frostfire Bolt for mages, as an example) in favor of making everything specific for a spec (mages now have essentially 3 unique toolkits with fewer options per spec and extremely limited crossover). While I get the appeal of a frost mage being exclusively a frost caster, it kind of changes the appeal in some ways. Mages are supposed to be masters of magic, and the fact that a mage might serve up all 3 schools of magic in some form during a fight was a cool thing that is mostly gone now.
Battle for Azeroth, while it didn’t prune much of anything save for some active talents, also did not replace the active Artifact abilities with anything. Azerite traits are, as of this writing, all passive, and therefore do not inherently add value to combat. Some of the newer traits have favorable interactions that can modify how you play your rotation, but these are few and far between, and also are not highly additive of gameplay – you’re simply choosing to delay an ability or press it sooner to respond to a trait.
While we have a rough idea that this might change in 8.2, with the Heart of Azeroth changes giving the necklace potential active-use abilities, for right now, we have none of that, and what is left with the removal of Artifact abilities is probably the smallest number of pressable buttons since Vanilla.
Now, I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, that might be okay – if you have a strong core rotation with interesting gameplay interactions and occasional friction, that’s great! The ways in which the team winds in resource management, random chance effects, and managing through throughput buffs can make a small rotation of 3-5 core abilities feel great. The problem is that many specs have a very disengaging gameplay loop that can often lead to tuning out. As a Vengeance Demon Hunter, I like my rotation – I have 7 different DPS abilities on short enough cooldowns or resource-generation timetables that my gameplay feels fluid and engaging, and talent selection can reduce that by one ability too, if I am feeling overwhelmed. I then also have active mitigation to keep an eye on, and my Metamorphosis for use to take bigger hits or recover from mistakes. On the other hand, while I like that Beast Mastery Hunter is an easy spec to pick up and play, the core rotation of the most common build is 4 abilities, with one that can randomly pop back up, one that can be made more available through gameplay choices, and a 5th active ability that can be more frequently activated via smart usage. There are two buffs, and that rounds out at 7 total buttons. My VDH has 7 DPS buttons, plus an AM button, plus a utility DPS ability, then utility spells and an oh shit button!
Now, with a game as large as WoW, it is good to have a variety in skill floor for specs, and I don’t think that inherently BM Hunter is bad because it has a small number of abilities. It can be boring, however, because its rotation is predictable to a point of dullness, and the talent and gameplay choices made available to you don’t change that in a meaningful way.
Item the Third – Boss Design Tries to Make Up The Gap
So if you’re Blizzard and you want to solve what you see as a button overabundance while not robbing players of meaningful gameplay interactions and opportunities to showcase player skill, what can you do? You prune, reducing the number of actual bindings needed, but then, you add complexity to boss fights – increasing the ability density of boss fights. Basically, the thought goes, that if you have less brain drain going into ability selection and rotation execution, than surely, the already-complex boss fights can tack on a few more abilities, right?
A fight like Mythrax in Uldir illustrates the problem easily. In order to properly execute, you need to spread out properly, knock players out of charm with a careful selection of abilities that can be executed in a direction to ensure proper movement of the charmed players. You need to be careful when taking the Essence orbs to not pull too many or another player’s orbs, and then you need to position well for the add phase to ensure maximum DPS on the add while also being mobile enough to move out of the boss laser without too much scattering or lost DPS. The fight has a tightly bound set of mechanics that demand much tighter execution. While Mythrax can be somewhat forgiving, other bosses in the later parts of Uldir, like Zul or especially G’huun, demand nearly perfect execution against the encounter conditions to win. Your skill with your class matters, but you also need to be really skillful with the fight mechanics, to a much higher degree than before.
It partially gets us some of the missing combat interactivity we might want, but it does so at the cost of class and spec uniqueness. Most ranged DPS will solve for their struggles in the same way, and most melee will behave identically against the parameters from the boss. Healers and tanks have a degree of autonomy and choice in their gameplay, but even then they also have unique mechanics in fights to bump up against. Have you noticed that more fights this expansion have healing debuffs that absorb healing and force healers to expend otherwise pointless casts to avert a potential future catastrophe? That is the healer version of these mechanics. Every healer has some spammable heal that they can use to meet these odd healing checks, and so for each of them, it’s largely the same. Tanks, meanwhile, have more attention checks in taunts than before, and can be stuck in a situation where the rhythm of a fight breaks and has to be re-established. Jadefire Masters has one tank taking both bosses for a stretch during their time main-tanking the monk. Grong’s mechanics require taunts only under certain circumstances, but sometimes a beast combo can be a 0-taunt affair and sometimes it can take 2 taunts in 3 abilities just to manage.
Now, I like some of these – tanks being on a fixed cadence has been a bit of an annoyance and I like that fights can be a bit more fluid and flexible, and reward attentive tanking. Same thing for all of these mechanics, really! The problem is that they are poor substitutes for class abilities, and they disincentivize bringing more than one character of a given role into a raid, if your goal is to just experience the gameplay. Once you’ve played a melee DPS in the raids so far, you’ve gotten the experience down and other classes in the same role just won’t be different enough to matter.
Further, it makes a lot of the choices you make not matter very much. There is a fixed set of talents for many specs on many fights, and choosing a different set of options isn’t just a slight differentiator but a full gimping of your potential.
Item the Fourth – So What Can Be Done?
For this expansion, sadly, probably not much. Combat is in a better spot than 8.0, as the combination of GCD removals from mobility skills and the increase in Haste and other stats has led to more fluid combat. However, it is still too slow feeling for WoW, too low on choices, and has too much friction with the fights Blizzard has designed for us this expansion. These things are mitigated in some settings (PvP has some favorable interactions with these system changes, as an example) but the overall pace of most gameplay feels worse for the changes, and it take the wind out of my sails a lot. Classes with simple rotations can often be negatively impacted even worse because of cooldowns on abilities forcing them to just wait for something to become available, or hit a silly filler that feels odd in the rotation (Enhancement Shaman to a tee).
Ultimately though, my aim here is to suggest what I would like to see as a player for the future of the game.
1. Remove more spells from the GCD, reverting to a pre-Legion state.
This one is because I think many of us liked the state of cooldown usage prior to BfA, and the effect on gameplay would be accelerating in a good way overall. However, something would definitely need to be done about the amount of DPS such a change would allow, so that leads me to…
2. Reduce the impact of 2+ minute cooldowns by reducing their buff value, duration, or both.
I love big cooldowns (and I cannot lie). But there is a balancing problem that is brought on by giving everyone large flat damage increases that scale further in power with stat increases. Outside of perhaps big, foundational buffs (like Bloodlust and derivatives), maybe percentage buffs should be less common, instead allowing for buffs to a stat value (instead of 25% crit, maybe have a buff give 2500 crit rating) so that while they remain powerful, they do not impact the end of expansion as negatively. 2500 crit rating would retain value throughout, while also not being vastly more powerful in the end of an expansion. Similarly, you could buff attack or spell power directly rather than a percentage increase to damage dealt. Tank buffs this expansion are already mostly locked to Armor as a value, which means that their scaling is relatively constrained, but I would like to see more options. Maybe a health buff with a fixed max health bonus similar to the old Battlemaster trinkets, or a cooldown that buffs parry, block, or dodge. I don’t want these stats on gear on being able to hit a button and gain some dodge would be pretty cool.
Short of these more fundamental design changes, you could also nerf them into line through reducing percentage values or durations as needed. Maybe for the health of the game, a 20% damage buff should be 10% instead, or a 30% damage buff is okay if it has a 15-second or less duration. You could adjust the cooldown to allow more usage over time and require more activations, or you could leave it and end up with a net reduction to uptime, which would serve as another tuning option.
3. Create more synergistic combat rotations to allow players to mix and match slightly.
Fixed rotations with occasional random chance buffs are fun, but I think a combo system would be cooler. I’m shamelessly stealing from Final Fantasy XIV on this one, but the DPS and tank specs there all have a main combo that sometimes offers branching paths. You might have an opener ability, which buffs a specific second ability, which then buffs a finisher, and you repeat, but in several cases, there are forked paths in the rotation. An opener might buff two abilities instead of one, and if you press choice 2, then it buffs a different third ability, and so on. I could envision a similar system in WoW that would work a lot like random chance effects today, but instead, gives more choices and allows players to plan ahead to maximize DPS. Maybe the choice is between a single-target big hit or a DoT effect, and you’d want to keep the DoT up while then using the big hit on subsequent rotations. Perhaps if a fight is going to force you to move, you could put a different bigger DoT up on the target and then move away as that damage fills the gap in GCDs.
4. Add some new abilities to the game.
The thought occurs that for as many different design spaces as the team has filled, there are more to be explored. For example, the thought pops into my head that a melee channeled ability hasn’t really been done, short of the Survival Hunter artifact trait in Legion. Imagine being an Arms warrior, wanting to load a target with bleed effects. You could, instead of just proccing a bleed, instead hit an ability that would grind the blade of your weapon into your opponent, allowing you to channel for up to 3 seconds, and the longer you hold it, the more damage the resulting bleed DoT effect does. Now imagine the same idea for say a Resto Druid – you could hit Rejuvenation on a target, but call it something different (let’s say Lifetender, I dunno!) and rather than just setting a fixed duration HoT with a fixed amount of healing per tick, you could instead channel the effect for up to 3-4 seconds, with the effect growing in intensity the longer you channel. Maybe if you complete the channel you can get it to burst a bit of instant healing on top of the HoT effect being at max strength.
I’ve used channeled abilities a lot here, because I think something else needs to be said in terms of design – movement effects tend to mainly hurt casters over anyone else, and I think that smart usage of moments where you can stand still and do a thing would be a great addition to non-traditional class options. Druids have channels already in Tranquility, and casts, but warriors? Not so much. The cool thing with a concept like this is that it also leaves elements of combat to player choice, increasing the good friction you need in design. The incentive is that maybe sometimes, I just want to hit Rejuvenation, or hit a single, instant attack that places a small bleed on my target. But there will be times where the benefit of a longer-duration effect that hits hard is going to be clear, and it increases my skill ceiling with these specs as I now have to learn to master these things and when they best fit my rotation.
5. Design raid bosses with newer, different gimmicks.
I love how mobile combat in WoW is, don’t get me wrong. But there are so many fights whose core mechanic breaks down to “do your normal stuff until you have to move, then repeat.” I want new reasons to move – Opulence’s golem guards have some relatively unique movement mechanics, but the core breaks down to stuff we’ve been doing for years. Maybe you could do a fight that allows everyone to cast while moving, but requires players to adapt rapidly, and uses multiple melee targets with a need to split or refocus DPS regularly as a means to force the melee into higher mobility. I don’t have great examples on this one, but while I like the core raid design tenets of WoW, I think there is still a larger, unexplored design space out there waiting.
6. Expansion gimmicks are fine, but maybe make less of our gameplay wound up in them.
I liked the Artifact system, and I like the theory of Azerite. The problem with execution in both cases is that they are intended to replace a larger array of removed abilities. The artifact offered active abilities to paper over this gap, but Azerite so far does not. Here’s the thing – if I had a Cataclysm or Mists of Pandaria level rotation with a good deal of complexity, and then I also had Azerite traits like today, I’d love the system. It would give me plenty of gameplay choice while also offering interesting enhancements (do I take two of this trait that empowers my main DPS ability?). Azerite’s biggest problem, to me, isn’t even that it’s boring – it is that it offers no active gameplay and the game did not step up to fill that gap.
In an ideal world, I like the idea of these gimmicks, but they should be where pruning happens. The idea should be simple, larger choices. Azerite, again, is a good example of this. In a world where my damage is sourced to a diverse array of abilities, the choice between buffing my main single-target spell or my main cleave, which I often use on a handful of bosses, becomes an interesting dilemma. While theorycrafting might say that one is objectively better, it also depends on playstyle, and my choice of talents and the way I interact with my character might weight one more heavily than a simulation would. That is the kind of choice and agency I want in my gameplay – give me a fun toy box full of good stuff, and then give me the accessories. If, as a child, I had the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles van but only 1 or two of the heroes in a halfshell, well, that would be cool but it would wear thin. Now, give me four turtles, with different styles, weapons, and fun elements, and then a van, and I can do so much more. I can rotate them into different seats, I can have Leonardo working the cannons one day instead of always driving, maybe Donatello takes over because he’s lowkey the best Ninja Turtle and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.
What was I talking about?
Right, expansion gimmicks – give me a shallow pool that stretches for a while, so I have plenty of water to explore without feeling like I’m drowning.
Also, only having Donatello and Michaelangelo to go with my TMNT van as a child affected me.
The Moral Is?
Overall, while I would be hard-pressed to say that BfA combat is “bad” (there’s that word again!), it certainly feels odd for World of Warcraft and I think there are some fundamental tweaks that are needed to bring the system into line.
I think we are at the point where a slow, careful addition of new baseline abilities or more active talents isn’t going to kill player retention in the slightest and will, in fact, hold the attention of the audience for longer.
I think WoW combat needs more meaningful choices, more places where I can put my foot down as a player and assert a meaningful stylistic difference without being punished through poor performance on DPS meters.
I think expansion gimmicks are great but they should always be additive design space, not net-zero additions, and they should not require that I drown myself in minutiae to determine what are good choices for me.
I think raid fights should be designed with less reliance on avoidance mechanics to further set apart WoW’s usually-excellent raid design.
I think my parents should have bought me Leonardo and Raphael to go with their friends on adventures in their van.
That last one has nothing to do with WoW, but I am still working through my emotions on the issue.