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Last week, I allowed the unthinkable to happen: I allowed myself to be out-DPSed by an elemental shaman. It was a terrible day, one from which I don't think I shall ever recover. It happened the day that I had finally gotten my new, shiny four-piece bonus. I was eager to try it out, estatic that I finally got myself out of that god-awful dress. Then something just fell through. This week was more of a redemption, but I will still never forget losing out that one time. If anything good did come of it, at least you could say that it got me thinking.
Upgrading from tier 11 to tier 12 should be a pretty big deal. The set has more and better itemization, the set bonuses are pretty spectacular -- so what could possibly be the issue? This week, we'll be talking about how tier 12 is great but not the bundle of roses that you might think it is. Depending on the encounter in question, which tier is actually better can change on you. Given that, should you ever go back to your old tier 11?
First we'll look at the tier 12 bonus itself -- both of them. The two-piece bonus, which allows you to summon up a fiery treant from casting Wrath or Starfire, is a lot better now than when it was first released. The original AI for the treants was beyond buggy; it was flat-out broken. Half the time, they would do nothing. They wouldn't chain cast their spells at all; you were lucky if you got half their potential casts off from every summon. If it wasn't for the old four-piece being completely gutted, it hardly would have been worth using at all. A later hotfix changed most of that. The treants aren't perfect, but they are miles ahead of where they used to be.
Suffice it to say that the current two-piece bonus is worth taking over the old four-piece by a long shot. Although it is the raw DPS of the T12 bonus that's better than T11, the main balancing act comes from how they both function. Both are systems that rely upon following the normal Eclipse rotation. If you're out AOEing in Solar, then you aren't switching Eclipse procs, making the T11 bonus useless -- but you also aren't casting Wrath or Starfire, making the T12 bonus useless. Since both bonuses are useless in roughly the same situations, they balance each other out.
The T12 four-piece bonus is not quite as lucky. The bonus increases the amount of Eclipse energy that is generated by Wrath and Starfire while outside of Eclipse. Essentially, this bonus results in needing one less cast in order to reach your next Eclipse proc. Without the bonus, it will take a maximum of five Starfire casts to reach a Solar Eclipse; with the bonus, it only takes four. No matter how you tweak the Energy via Starsurge casts, it will always end up with the same reduction.
Reducing the amount of casts required to reach an Eclipse has a rather strange impact on our DPS. What it does is change three different areas of our rotation. First, it alters the balance of Eclipsed spells to non-Eclipsed spells. Balance druids are balanced upon the notion that you will always have X number of Eclipsed Wraths followed by Y number of non-Eclipsed Wraths. This number cannot change outside of a Euphoria procs; you will always have the same amount of casts. By reducing the number of casts outside of Eclipse, the system shifts more toward the side of Eclipsed spells, allowing for a higher percentage of them in the rotation.
Look at it this way. Ignoring Starsurge, it would take five Starfires to leave a Lunar Eclipse plus an additional five Starfires to reach a Solar Eclipse, making it a 1:1 ratio of Eclipsed casts to non-Eclipsed casts. With this bonus, you would still take five Starfires to end Eclipse, but it would now only take four to reach the next proc. The ratio now changes to 1.25:1.
Increasing the ratio of Eclipsed casts to non-Eclipsed casts, however, is a fairly trivial affair. Overall, the impact that it is going to have on your rotation isn't all that stellar; instead, it is the other two principles that are far more impressive. Balance druids operate on a very strict rotation; within that rotation are our DOTs. We want our DOTs to be up 100% of the time, but we also want for those DOTs to be Eclipsed 100% of the time. The shorter the time between each Eclipse, then the less often we have to refresh our DOTs. Our DOTs only last for 18 seconds, give or take a second due to haste, so you have to reach the next Eclipse within that timeframe, which normally can only be achieved by additional haste. In reducing the number of casts needed to reach Eclipse, it helps to boost our uptime -- or rather, it helps to reduce the number of times we have to overwrite our DOTs.
Last but not least is Nature's Grace. Many balance druids seem to forget this keystone talent is still there. Every time that you hit an Eclipse, Nature's Grace is reset and you are allowed to proc it once again. That's 15 seconds of 15% haste every single Eclipse. Now, outside of a Bloodlust, you really aren't going to hit a time where you'll have 100% uptime on Nature's Grace, but this is a part of why haste is so important to us. More haste means more haste. The faster you transition from Eclipse to Eclipse, the higher the uptime on Nature's Grace, which in turn gives you more haste. The T12 four-piece bonus has a really good impact on the uptime of Nature's Grace. It doesn't add in any raw haste, but the effect of needing one less cast per rotation is the same.
Issues with T12 and T11
The problem that we see is that both of the T12 bonuses rely on a single thing, or rather two things: Wrath and Starfire. Both of the bonuses only effect these two spells, so any time that you aren't casting them, you aren't benefiting from them. Normally, that wouldn't be much of an issue. You want to be casting these spells as much as you possibly can anyway -- but there is one little snag. Balance druids don't always follow their standard rotation. During AOE phases, we don't cast Wrath or Starfire; we stand around casting Sunfire, Insect Swarm, and Wild Mushroom instead.
Further, when preparing for an AOE phase, we'll be casting the "wrong" spell, generally Starfire, while sitting in a Solar Eclipse. This isn't bad in the sense that it's wrong, but this does prevent you from benefiting from the T12 four-piece, which is a rather significant loss to its usefulness. If you aren't going to be going through a normal rotation for half the encounter, you aren't going to be gaining anything form having four-piece T12 during that time, so what's the point of using it? Normally, it would be a non-issue. Not gaining the most out of a set bonus isn't anything new to any class, yet we hit something of a snag.
T11's two-piece bonus increases the critical strike chance of Moonfire and Insect Swarm by 5%, which is really awesome when you're multi-DOTing like crazy. In fact, it is so awesome that using T11 for AOE is actually a rather significant DPS increase over using T12. When you consider that you multi-DOT for four of the seven encounters within Firelands, it can be a little tough to support why you should even be using T12 for a majority of the current content.
As an example, for phase 1 of Beth'tilac, I never leave Solar Eclipse, ever. Phase 1 is also far longer than phase 2, which means I spend most of the fight getting absolutely nothing out of wearing T12. On the other hand, I would actually gain a significant amount of DPS by wearing T11. Most players that upgrade from T11 to T12 actually don't see any DPS increase on this encounter, and that's because you don't get one. You gain nothing from T12 and quite a lot from T11 during phase 1, which is the bulk of the encounter, more than making up for the ilevel difference.
This is the huge flaw in set design that balance druids actually face right now. T11 is far better for AOE than T12, yet T12 is miles ahead when you actually have to follow a rotation. In many cases, the DPS difference from upgrading to T12 is totally drowned out by the fact that you no longer have the bonus from T11 and you're gaining nothing from the newest four-piece. It's rather sad that druids can upgrade their gear and yet end up not seeing any change in their damage potential.
The end result
All of that being said, there is still no reason that we should be using T11 over T12. Despite the fact that T11 can offer higher DPS in multiple situations, T12 offers more DPS in the situation that it most counts -- against the boss. Phase 1 of Beth'tilac is relatively easy; your damage potential isn't going to matter so much that losing what part of it that you do doesn't really matter. Further, the chances of wiping on Phase 1 are relatively low and won't be due to missing out on a 5% crit chance on your DOTs. The most significant part of the encounter is phase 2, when you have to kill Beth'tilac as quickly as you can before she overwhelms the raid and kills you all. In that situation, T12 far outshines T11, and that's the only part of the fight that really matters.
This same principle is repeated over and over for every single other boss encounter. There is only one boss encounter that you might be able to make a case for wearing T11, and that would be Lord Rhyolith, purely because his health is so unnaturally low that his falls over before Bloodlust even drops.
Conflicting with ourselves
While the battle between T11 and T12 might be slightly one-sided, it shows a huge flaw in balance druid design. We are at war with ourselves just as much as we are with our rotation. We want to follow Eclipse. We want to push that little meter back and forth as much as we possibly can. Yet there is still a significant amount of time when we simply don't -- we can't. Propping balance druids up via Wrath or Starfire is only a fraction of our damage; the other part of the time, we totally ignore those spells.
No other spec works the way that we work. No other spec has so much planning and effort and alterations to their rotation due to AOE. A hunter may pull energy, but for how long? 10 seconds max? We have to think of our rotation up to 20 seconds ahead of time. If I break Solar now, do I have time to get back? What if I have to move from something?
The best solution would be for Blizzard to fix this horrible flaw that we've been dealing with for the entire expansion, but the short-term fix is that the itemization team needs to understand us as well. The T12 set bonuses show it all rather clear. They understand our rotation, they understand the principles of how we work, but they don't actually understand how it operates in reality. Blizzard seems far too stuck in its theory of how it wants Eclipse to work and not spending enough time actually watching balance druids and seeing how it works in the game.