In FFXIV, while I’ve had all jobs leveled since midway through Shadowbringers, I have certain jobs I just kind of don’t play.
The two top culprits that have remained that way in Endwalker thus far for me are Black Mage and Scholar.
Black Mage is a job that is daunting to me, because it is simple to a point (just cycle elements, duh), but the process of managing that to maximum efficiency is more complex than just cycling spells, especially to maximize total potency over a fight. It’s also one of the only jobs remaining with a DoT (a theme it shares with the other “selfish” DPS in Samurai) but that DoT comes with a more intricate juggle than Higanbana on Samurai.
Scholar is a healer that a lot of players of FFXIV seem to love. Scholar tends to be a staple of high-end play and progression, given that they were once the only shield healer (Astrologian could do in a pinch prior to Endwalker but it was often less potent) and they have a lot of things they do very well – the biggest shields, the ability to directly create a crit shield effect for a ton of damage reduction, and a lot of passive single-target healing via the faerie that makes keeping to DPS easy. On top of all of that, they also bring Chain Strategem, a potent DPS increase on a single target, which makes their raid viability all the more secure. Despite all this, my dark healing secret in FFXIV is that I hate Scholar. It just never clicked for me, Aetherflow feels bad to me, and while every healer has the same basic, dull DPS rotation in the game, the Scholar one just feels somehow worse to me – it’s all based on feeling without a lot of solid actual observation, but I just don’t like how it feels or plays.
But, a big part of making FFXIV my main MMO has been trying out things I don’t like or don’t fully get, and so over the last handful of days, I’ve put in some play and practice on both jobs at level 90.
Black Mage is one that I enjoy when I get the flow going, and it probably has the best gameplay loop in terms of consequences and reward. Most jobs in FFXIV have minimal penalty for deviating from rotation, movement, and the like. Both other caster DPS jobs, in fact, rely quite heavily on instant or near-instant casts – Red Mage has the cycle of Dualcast as the cornerstone of their gameplay, and Summoner is nearly all instant-casts with the Ifrit cycle feeling the worst of the 3 primal runs because of the cast time on his spells and his extra ability being a gap closer you need to hit for damage. Black Mage is simple on paper, but the complexity of the job comes in how you manage the spellcasting itself. You’ve got long-ish cast times and fights demanding mobility, so you have to really pick your spots to plant as safely as possible and minimize casting disruptions. You get tools for that, with two different instant-cast teleports that can fly you to a party member’s side or to your Ley Lines when those are down, but teleporting to a group member means either macroing the spell or changing target for a moment, which is a learned skill to avoid interrupting your gameplay flow.
The other thing that is interesting about high-level Black Mage play is managing the juggle of spells. You end up using a mix of ranks of spells, with each serving a particular niche – rank 3 Blizzard and Fire for activating your elemental attunement to their respective types, the rank 1 versions of both become Paradox at level 90 when managing your flow correctly, giving you tools to do more damage and extend your time in the element, and the rank 4 versions of both serve different niches. Layer in the Enochian mechanic, weaving your Thunder DoT effect, and the Fire closeout spells of Flare and Despair (hey that rhymes) and it creates an interesting job with a very simple foundation that becomes quite hard to master. It’s especially tricky with a proper opener, as the current level 90 opener asks you to open in Astral Fire, and that opening stretch has very specific needs for both Triplecast and Swiftcast to properly run the first Astral cycle without running out of time or MP, and it’s fun! Genuinely, actually – there is a real powerful feeling when you hit the buttons correctly and quickly and fire off that Despair to close out the opener in the final second of Astral Fire, and every time I get it right, I feel a little surge of dopamine (the numbers did go up, after all).
Scholar is a job that I, admittedly, don’t quite get even still. This is especially funny because Sage, a job I have been playing mainly for most of the current Savage tier, is said to be quite similar, with obvious parallels between their kits. In fact, healers in FFXIV right now in general remind me of the healer balance of WoW circa Cataclysm – every healer has the same basic kit of spells, with most flavor being in how those spells look and in the edges. Astrologian is pretty different from White Mage, but mostly because of all the extracurriculars – damage buffs, cards, etc, while Sage is different from Scholar, but mostly in DPS abilities and the reliance on mitigation on Sage versus direct shielding on Scholar. Scholar is a job that puts a premium into planning – Sage has this, but there are relatively more recovery tools on Sage if you start to feel the bottom falling out of a run, where Scholar can overextend and find themselves out of Aetherflow and unable to compensate, at least when learning. I’ve seen Scholar players do a lot of crazy saves, but right now, the way they do it is arcane to me!
One of the interesting things I’ve noticed is that while Scholar shields are a fair bit stronger than Sage ones, Sage shields being instant-cast brings a lot of ease to the table. On Sage, I can sling shields aggressively if the situation calls for it, with the actual shield hitting sooner, while Scholar requires some measure of preparedness – if you’re throwing shields to save the party, you might already be too late by the time the cast gets off. For that reason, to me at least, Sage feels very different from Scholar despite the obvious kit similarities – learning Sage feels smoother because you can respond very slightly faster if things get pear-shaped with the obvious buttons at your disposal, while Scholar needs to plan Aetherflow use, a thing that is not always so easy to do. In fact, that is probably where most of the difference comes from – Sage gets Addersgall stacks every 20 seconds without fail and without needing to press anything, and they can pop Rhizomata to get a stack every 90 seconds on top of that. Scholars can get 3 stacks of Aetherflow every 60 seconds from the ability of the same name, but you have to press it. You also have the option of getting an additional 3 stacks every three minutes from Dissipation, losing your faerie for a short time in exchange for more healing potency on your own and those precious Aetherflow stacks.
However, while Sage uses Addersgall exclusively for healing and mitigation (and MP recovery), Scholar has a damage option tied to Aetherflow that becomes complicated. In a dungeon or PUG scenario, you probably want to save your Aetherflow stacks for healing and Sacred Soil, but in a raid scenario when you want to do as much damage as possible, Energy Drain is staring at you promisingly. Sure, it isn’t much damage (in my item level 598 Scholar set, Energy Drain hits for a few points of damage below 1,000) but in progression raiding, that is 3,000 extra damage in a window if need be. The complication of trying to weave Energy Drain to learn the full opener and playstyle, though, is that in a dungeon with random people or a normal raid, you might end up wanting for those Aetherflow stacks to heal! This is one of the interesting ways that Scholar has a particular hangup on the damage meta of the game – the “correct” damage choice is Energy Drain weaving, but it also isn’t that much damage realistically, being around 3,000 extra damage a minute if you just dump all your Aetherflow that way with every third minute in a fight being 6,000 if you also use Dissipation to get Aetherflow to use on Energy Drain (that’s the opener on the Balance, so hey).
What this can lead to is a sort of challenge of resource management, something that the job gauges of FFXIV try to create as-is. The other 3 healers all generate their resources either fully passively (Sage and White Mage) or generate theirs through normal play (Astrologian). Hitting Aetherflow alone isn’t really a big gameplay interaction on its own, but it does create a change in perspective because it puts a lot of the gameplay management in your hands directly. In some ways, that’s better (I like the idea that you can stash Aetherflow to use for a big moment of required healing or could even save it for burst windows when the whole raid is popping buffs and pumping damage), but it does create a learning curve that is a little steeper than the other healers (Aetherflow as an ability is something you likely want to keep on cooldown, so missing a hit of it for longer than a few seconds could lead to resource deprivation later on in a fight).
After a couple of dungeons on both, I found myself feeling pretty okay about my performance, all told. On Black Mage, the opener is still hit or miss for me as I work on smoothing out the final steps of that Astral Fire so I hit them reliably, but I had a good couple of runs in Dead Ends and Alzadaal’s Legacy yesterday with one even getting me a commendation as DPS, so that was pretty neat. Scholar is…well, I can’t say I fully get it yet. I did a similar pair of runs as Scholar with the new dungeon and a launch level 90 expert, no one died and I did cast my damage spells a good amount of the time, but it just felt weird. A big part of it is, I think, that the muscle memory of Sage is so vastly different from all 3 other healers because of Eukrasia that it feels weird to “just” hit the DoT button, or “just” hit a cast time heal that gives a shield and have to wait for the cast before moving. Sage plays really well and feels really good for competent runs with wall-to-wall pulls because you can shield while running, do DPS while running with Toxikon and Phlegma in addition to your spammable AoE, and that all comes together in a really viscerally satisfying way. On Sage, I have insane burst on big AoE pulls for damage and there is something really satisfying about that, while on Scholar, it just feels…not quite that good. Art of War always feels bad to me because it just doesn’t have enough feedback in my opinion (in terms of spell visual and sound) and even the main components of the DPS rotation in Broil and Biolysis suffer from that. Sage is big and loud, with pew pew laser sounds going off all the time and fun (if contrived) casting animations, while Broil kind of reminds me of a train engine sound and all the animations in the kit are some variation of “look at this nerd, they’re READING!”
Overall though, I will probably try both some more (I already did my Hunt bills today as Black Mage and did my Expert roulette on the job as well) because I think that a part of going deep on FFXIV is going to be getting into the weeds on these things, even where I have difficulty learning them or just don’t vibe with the aesthetic and presentation of the job. I’m probably never going to be a Scholar main, but Black Mage is already now my most-played caster in Endwalker (although I still have only done EX trials in the caster role as Summoner, instant casts are a big help for learning how to play against all the abilities going off!) and after these two, there are a handful of jobs worth looking at more for me.