This is a long post, so feel free to jump to the bottom for a TL;DR of my recommended changes for Resto Shaman in Shadowlands.
To start, let me briefly share my experience with Resto over the years. I started playing Shaman in BC, after being a Resto Druid main in classic. Since then, I have been an alternating Elemental/Resto Shaman main (a glutton for punishment, I know). The class fantasy has always been the most appealing to me, and being a high-throughput, low mobility AoE healer in raids has long been my favorite part of the game. In both Legion and BfA I have done quite a bit of M+ (at a slightly above average difficulty, nothing too high), and have been pretty gutted by the lack of support for my favorite class as a viable healer in this content. Playing the pre-patch beta, I decided I wanted to try my hand at theory-crafting a fix for the class so that it can be seen as a viable choice in M+ and beyond.
Abysmal Single-Target Healing
There has been one constant in the Resto Shaman design philosophy for the entirety of the game’s history: Strong sustained AoE healing on grouped targets. This has been the strength of the spec since its inception, and not much has changed to move it beyond that. What has changed, however, is nearly everything else—challenging content rarely affords groups the opportunity to stay huddled together for extended periods of time (even in raids, generally considered Resto Shaman’s strongest niche), and M+ (and PvP to a lesser extent) requires burst single-target healing to counteract unavoidable mechanics that deal huge percentages of a single target’s health.
Shaman currently has no impactful tools to deal with these single-target scenarios. Riptide has low initial healing even when talented into, and is largely just a means to generate a stack of Tidal Waves. Unleash Life is a step in the right direction, but because it too requires a cast of Healing Surge afterward, it does nothing to immediately aid a target on the brink of death. Sprit Link can arguably be described as a single target cooldown depending on the situation. However, because it is on a 3-minute timer and requires other high-health targets to be nearby, it is almost always more effective to use as a burst AoE healing tool—making it unavailable for single-target healing.
The Resto Shaman mastery, Deep Healing, is one that fits thematically and has remained virtually unchanged since it was added in Cataclysm. It increases the effectiveness of heals on targets based on their missing health, adding more bonus healing for lower-health targets. On paper this sounds effective, and in some cases it actually is. Specifically, this mastery is great for raid environments where a group of targets are brought to low health and there is a window of time afterwards to heal them back to full. In practice, however, Deep Healing contributes very little to healing in nearly every other context.
The failure of Deep Healing is primarily the fault of changes in the way dungeons and raids are designed. At one point, the role of healing was meant to do much of what Deep Healing is good at: returning targets to full health in the time between choreographed spikes of damage. However, that is no longer the case. Dungeons and raids alike are now designed with complex damage patterns and unpredictable bursts in damage received. This means that the role of healers is now to keep the group at full health at all times, so that these unexpected spikes of damage do not happen to kill someone sitting at 50% health. This is where the mastery fails, because keeping everyone at full health essentially removes its impact completely. At present, Resto Shaman mastery is essentially a flat increase to healing done that scales incredibly poorly, which is both uninteresting and ineffective.
Given the intrinsic problems with the spec, something clearly needs to change for Resto Shaman to become a competitive pick in nearly all kinds of content beyond progression raiding. I understand that the design team is devoting much of its time to “borrowed power”—max-level character systems that expire once an expansion ends—and I’m not going to get into whether or not that’s a good philosophy here. What’s important is that for a system like that to work, the foundation of a spec needs to be well-rounded and flexible enough to allow creativity and player expression within an expansion’s systems.
The main reason why Resto Druid is a perennially competitive pick is because they are just those things: they have at least one tool for nearly every situation, and they are at least capable of all kinds of healing, even in their weakest areas. That’s not to say that Resto Druid doesn’t have any weaknesses—what’s significant is that they have enough flexibility in their baseline kit that they can adapt their character to the kind of content they wish to heal using the expansion’s progression systems. If a class’s kit has too great a weakness is any single area, then they are effectively obligated to use the fun new systems to shore up that weakness, rather than carving a niche for themselves in the kind of content they would like to do. This is the crux of Resto Shaman’s problem: they have a clear strength and clear weaknesses, but the weaknesses are so dramatic that character progression is reduced to mitigating those weaknesses until they become minimally viable.
The (Possible) Solutions
I think most people agree that Resto Shaman has been in a bad place for quite some time and needs to change. But what can be done without entirely redesigning the spec? (A prospect that will not happen due to the required labor and investment in the current design.) It just so happens that there are two pieces of the current expansion’s temporary progression system that fit remarkably well with the Resto Shaman kit, and can be applied in ways that maintain most of the spec’s identity and assets while making them well-rounded enough to be a competitive choice: both the major and minor effects of the essences The Well of Existence and Vitality Conduit (plus a third option based roughly on the Legion trinket Highfather’s Machination).
The passive effects from these essences and the trinket fit Resto Shaman thematically and can be a large step in reducing their weaknesses to reasonable levels. In short, all of these effects take extraneous AoE healing and convert it into effective healing on targets that need it. While I'm listing these as thematic pairs, they could just as easily be implemented in any combination. What is important is that both the Shaman mastery is updated and that they are given some kind of single target healing tool.
Deep Reservoir (Mastery) and Wellspring (Spell)
The first option is a mastery called something like Deep Reservoir that is mechanically similar to The Well of Existence (WoE) essence. WoE stores a percentage of overhealing done, and passively adds some of the stored healing to spells that target allies at low health. Deep Reservoir would act similarly, saving a percent of overhealing done (scaling with mastery) that is added to a reservoir (the total size of which scales with mastery). Rather than only applying to targets below a threshold, however, I think it makes more sense to tie the delivery to something within the Shaman’s control: namely, specific spells will always consume some of the stored healing if it would not overheal the target. As a means of helping single-target throughput, this could be the Shaman’s main spells: Healing Wave, Healing Surge, and Riptide (possibly even Healing Tide Totem as a big AoE spender). The amount that gets contributed to each spell would be a percentage of the size of the total reservoir, meaning that it also scales with the mastery stat.
There are a few ways to display this information for a player. One is to simply add another resource bar below their mana bar that tracks the amount stored; another is to track that information on a buff/debuff (like Brewmaster Monk’s Stagger) that changes colors based on percent stored and shows the specific amount in the tooltip. One consideration is that currently, WoE encourages gathering a bunch of stored healing before combat starts. I think an easy way to prevent that generally uninteresting playstyle is to scale it so that the maximum healing stored is much lower than WoE, and the healing expended is much higher. There is also the option to just store a percent of all healing (or just AoE healing) done.
To round this mastery out as an answer to Shaman’s lack of single-target burst healing, there could be a spell called Wellspring (while the name is already taken for a talent, the talent is not good and should probably be replaced with something else) that is essentially a dump of stored healing into a single target on a mid-range cooldown, similar to the major effect from WoE. The numbers would certainly have to be tuned differently, but with a smaller total stored healing pool and a longer cooldown I think this would be a great option.
Bonded Spirits (Mastery) and Spirit Conduit (Spell)
The next option is based on the essence Vitality Conduit (VC), which gives heals a chance to transfer health from a nearby ally with higher health (and leaves the ally whose health was stolen a small shield at rank 3). This has a very similar effect to the first essence, in that it takes our powerful AoE healing kit and allows some of it to then be directed toward allies when they need it. This also builds on the class fantasy of Resto Shaman being spirit-manipulators and exchanging the health of their allies a la Spirit Link.
In order to work as a balanced mastery, I think some things would need to change. First, I think leaving a shield on allies that give up health is too strong (and convoluted for a mastery effect). Perhaps a system where the mastery stat scales up the amount of damage taken and reduces the actual health lost for the victim would work better. The activation method would also need to change: it could be similar to the above where the core single-target healing spells trigger the effect, or merely any healing received as VC current functions.
The major power of VC is an interesting spell that places a short duration effect on the target that siphons health from nearby allies. This could be rebranded as something like Spirit Conduit (creative, I know), but would be simplified. Unlike VC, an instant, larger effect makes more sense for the Shaman class. This also removes it as an AoE tool, since the original effect also jumped to nearby allies if the original target was fully healed.
Lingering Condensation (Mastery) and Precipitate (Spell)
The final option is loosely based on the Antorus trinket Highfather's Machination. The trinket had a high chance to grant targets of heals a stacking buff, that would burst for the stored healing if the target dropped below 50% health. Again, having to hit an arbitrary health threshold to activate the healing feels bad in a lot of situations (especially when targets regularly drop from 75% health to 0), so I would change it as follows: instead of all heals having a chance to add a charge, make it like a mini version of the above proposed Deep Reservoir effect, having heal targets store a specific amount of the healing (or exclusively overhealing) they receive as a buff, the amount stored scaling with mastery. Then, once again the buff can be "popped" by healing the target with one of the primary single-target spells.
As a single-target CD counterpart to this mastery, I'm thinking a spell called something like Precipitate that could function in one of two ways: first, it could instantly pop all the healing stored on a specific target with some bonus %healing. The other option is to grab the stored healing on other nearby allies and draw them all to the target and burst them, in a similar fashion to the above Spirit Conduit effect. Either of these would work, and honestly this pair is my favorite out of the above possible solutions for Shaman's problems—but again any combination thereof would work as well.
Other Minor Changes
While the suggestions above would go a long way toward salvaging Resto Shaman, I also have some extra small changes that would be huge quality of life improvements:
Change Earth Shield to function like a singe-target Earthen Wall Totem
This means that each stack reduces a flat, low-ish amount of damage taken from each attack received. I think removing the internal CD, the healing effect (although increasing healing received by the target can stay), and increasing the number of stacks would make it feel like a meaningful part of the kit. Even giving it a cooldown would make sense here, so that it moves away from being a boring maintenance spell with very little actual impact into an interesting defensive cooldown with clear strengths and weaknesses. It also introduces a thematic similarity with other earth-based healing spells, which is a nice little bonus for clarity’s sake.
Make the initial heal on Healing Rain baseline
Healing Rain has become a quintessential part of the spec, but remains lackluster to the point that it frequently isn’t even used in most content. The obvious parallel is with Resto Druid’s Efflorescence, which is generally a flat improvement—being instant cast, lasting longer, and smart healing the lowest health target within it for a larger amount. Making the initial cast of Healing Rain do a moderate amount of healing would make it feel less like ineffective prep work and more like a reactive tool for AoE damage, although it could probably use a numbers bump over what the current azerite trait and legiondary item provided.
Buff Riptide and give it a Wild Growth-like HoT drop-off
Riptide, as it stands, is almost exclusively a spell to generate a stack of Tidal Waves, making it a wasted global cooldown that could be the difference between keeping someone alive or having them die before Healing Surge can be cast. Buffing the initial heal substantially, as well as making the HoT start off ticking quickly then decay over time like Wild Growth, would make the spell feel like a healing tool in its own right.
Make Downpour work more like the artifact weapon ability
In Legion, the Resto artifact weapon ability was a ground-targeted AoE heal that split healing among those inside. This made it an interesting spell that could be used as either a single-target heal or an AoE heal by placing it cleverly. While it’s fine that it was converted into an optional talent, the change to multiple targets incurring a longer cooldown and not splitting the healing essentially made the spell yet another lackluster AoE healing tool that we have too many of as is.
Rework the Resto Shaman Mastery to either a Well of Existence-like overhealing storage effect, a Vitality Conduit-esque health transfer effect from allies with higher health, or a Highfather's Machination-style effect that stores an amount of healing a target receives as a buff that can be burst by using a single-target heal on them.
Give Shaman a single-target healing cooldown that goes with the above mastery rework or stands alone. This could be a Well of Existence expending burst heal, a Vitality Conduit active health transfer, or an ability that instantly bursts stored healing on a target for bonus health.
I hope these ideas can inspire some discussion, and possibly reach the WoW devs as just a few ideas to consider (although I understand that it's… not likely). Feel free to discuss your (probably better) ideas, or share other communities that would enjoy these ideas! Thanks for reading.
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