Niche Design is for the Birds

One of the design approaches we’ve seen over the years in WoW is the “niche design” approach, where each class or spec has a specific thing that they’re good at. This applies to all roles, so that some healers may be better at tank healing than raid healing, some tanks may be better at quick movement, but the biggest area is how this is applied to DPS specs.

First though, some background on what a “niche” actually is, why it’s good out in the world, and why it’s not so good in class designing.

Niches: From Beaks to “Deeps”

bird beaks.PNG

The sort of niche we’re talking about here is the “Ecological Niche” where different species co-exist by having different behavioral & feeding adaptations. The bird beak image above highlights the different sorts of feeding adaptations for various birds, so a nectar feeder like a Hummingbird isn’t in direct competition with the Toucan which eats fruit. The downside of these adaptations is that if the particular food source is no longer available the species will need to adapt or die out, and in some cases the changes are rapid enough so that this isn’t possible.

So, how does this relate to class design in WoW?

The “niches” for DPS specs are things like single or multi target damage, utility, or even how fast they move. A good example of this is how Elemental and Enhancement Shaman are really good for sustained area of effect damage, but fall behind elsewhere. As a result of this neither spec is particularly popular in Mythic Raiding guilds. Part of this is because Single Target Damage can effectively be considered a niche too and unfortunately this is a fairly key component of how specs perform at the moment. The problem with niche design is two fold: encounter design needs to include opportunities for all specs to shine, and if a raid team lacks a critical spec for one of these encounters it can be a major problem.

There are many different niches & sub-niches:

  • Single Target
    • Sustained
    • Burst
    • Target Switching
  • Multi Target
    • Cleave
    • AoE
    • Multi DoT
  • Movement
    • Quick movement
    • High output
  • Healing
    • Tank
    • AoE
    • Spread raid
    • Defensive cooldowns
  • Tanking (note that Tank specifics are a bit up in the air due to recent Alpha changes)
    • Defensive cooldowns
  • Utility
    • Damage Immunity
    • Damage Reduction
    • Other raid cooldowns

Negative Niches

A critical example of this problem was the Raid Healer role that Restoration Shaman had back Burning Crusade, Wrath & Cataclysm vs the Tank Healer role that Holy Paladins had at the same time. Back then guilds were made of either 10 or 25 players but generally speaking there would never be more than 1 Resto Shaman in any raid team due to their tank healing weakness, which included the lack of a tank or raid cooldown.

There can be some differences between specs in style like multidotting Shadow Priests vs cleave damage from Melee classes and Elemental Shaman as these are different styles of doing the same thing. Significant differences in output by specs or the lack of niches in the design of an instance can alter how raid teams view their spec compositions, in turn negatively affecting player enjoyment and can result in re-rolling or quitting entirely.

The ideal situation, following with the “Bring the Player not the Class” mantra from a few years ago, would be to have Tanks, Healers, Melee or Ranged DPS specs fairly interchangeable within each role. This way it doesn’t matter in extreme cases if the entire tank or healer team is one spec, or that the DPS specs are a general mix rather than focusing on a few “optimal” performers.

Spec Swaps

If there are significant barriers between changing spec or class in Legion then this could cause further problems if specs aren’t reasonably balanced. As an Elemental Shaman I’m somewhat stuck in my spec unless I wish to change role, but for other classes with multiple specs in the same role being unable to switch from the best single target spec to the best multi-target spec will be a big problem.

I can see the advantage to making players identify with one spec rather than just as the class in general. For example, identifying oneself as a Fire Mage is better than just being a general Mage, but if you like Fire but get stuck as Arcane because it’s the “best” spec players may not enjoy themselves as much.

A Final Note

At the end of the day, I’d like to be able to do the same job on an Elemental Shaman, Balance Druid or an Arcane Mage with roughly the same output (allowing for skill & gear, obviously) so that I know that if I top the damage meters on a boss kill that it’s because of my skill rather than having a better AoE or Single Target class than everyone else.

Alpha: General Gameplay Notes

These are my feedback notes for Alpha testing. I’ll come back and edit/expand these as testing continues. I’ll mark new sections in italics for returning readers.

Single Target

  • Using Maelstrom for multiple abilities seems good, except for the fact that Earth Shock resets you to zero Maelstrom. This means you either need to waste maelstrom in order to do something important, or delay what you’re doing until you’ve regenerated maelstrom for it. The problem is that the combination of frequent resource spending that can be seen in most melee specs like Warriors doesn’t mesh well with the build/dump behaviour Elemental has previously had with Lightning Shield charges.
  • Flame Shock duration stuff seems really odd. A 30 second dot doesn’t get extended by a 10 second dot because the new dot is the higher out of the existing OR 130% of the new cast. I can understand why this is (so refreshing with a 0 Ms dot doesn’t reduce damage) but it seems weird.
  • There is confusion among players about how Lava Burst and Lightning Bolt will work in the rotation relative to each other, and when throwing in Stormkeeper & Power of the Maelstrom it becomes a game of using the buff/charges before they expire while also using cooldown abilities on cooldown. A lot of players will fall into the counter-intuitive trap of using their “biggest damage” spells first.
  • It feels like there is too much complexity going into the base rotation with all the procs & buffs, but also wasted opportunity as some of these may effectively be ignored

Minimalist Suggestions

  • Change Earth Shock to be 0-50 Maelstrom with a base SP value of around 90%, and increase by 90% SP for every 10 Ms used.
    • Resolves issue with capping resources without using all resources
    • Adds a bit more game play to mobile DPS – store up Ms to use while moving & not spamming Flame Shock
  • Remove Maelstrom cost for Flame Shock

General Suggestions

  • Remove Power of the Maelstrom and replace it with something else to reduce the buff stackability on Lightning Bolt
  • Increase the duration of some of the short term charge buffs like Stormkeeper, so that it’s possible to use the charges without changing the rotation.
  • Alter Elemental Focus so that it is something advanced players can try to optimise & give some more power to Echo of the Elements

Multi Target

  • Generating enough Maelstrom for Earthquake feels really slow at the moment, but may come right with artifact traits increasing CL hits
  • Earthquake use doesn’t feel good as a generate/spend model as CL is slow-ish to generate Maelstrom at the moment, plus Earthquake has a 10 second duration which means it won’t be suited to the “burst AoE” thing that we’ve seen so often in Warlords. I would still favour proper build/spend rotation for AoE that doesn’t spread damage over a time period, similar to how Lightning Bolt builds for Earth Shock
  • Chain Lightning has a hidden divisor for Overload. Likely to be 1/3 as it was in Mists of Pandaria

Minimalist Suggestions

  • Reduce duration of Earthquake Totem to 4 seconds or less for the same damage

General Suggestions

  • Remove the multi-dotting ideas behind Magnitude (talent) and Fury of the Stormlord (artifact trait) as the setup process is lengthy, complicated, and likely to have minimal impact
  • Replace Earthquake Totem with an AoE ability that deals all its damage in one hit rather than over 10 seconds.


  • Magnitude seems a bit awkward to use as it requires a lot of setup: enough Maelstrom to cast Earthquake, Flame Shocks on multiple targets and AoE duration long enough for at least one full Earthquake use

Talent Suggestions

  • Talents should be interesting choices. The current L60 talents could be viewed as Burst vs Passive vs Sustained Control within the context of Legion changes.
  • Limit or remove some of the talent/trait interaction. Currently Primal Elementalist either seems very overpowered with all traits, or weak without them.


  • Stormkeeper as a cast feels “wrong”.
  • Stormkeeper’s buff seems a bit short. Have managed to run out of time to use them all if I try weaving in Lava Burst casts for Focus charges. Needs to have increased duration

Other Notes

  • Mastery feels like it is trying to do way too much at the moment: additional damage, resource generation and haste buff with artifact traits.




Alpha: Bug & Technical Notes


  • Earth Shock tooltip is wrong. Currently showing 660% SP at 100 Maelstrom, although since this is at roughly 60% SP per 5 Ms the current tooltip seems technically correct
  • Artifact trait Searing Shocks extends dots by a fixed figure. All of my tests showed the dot refeshing based on a 30 sec max duration and then the additional 2 seconds tacked on the end. eg: 0 Ms 12 sec application, 15 sec refresh. Need to confirm refresh numbers with 20 Ms
  • Overloads seem to have a 70-80% range rather than being 75% of the triggering spellcast.
  • Flame Shock won’t refresh via Pandemic unless the dot is under the max refresh time for a 0 Ms cast (plus artifact traits)


  • Flame Shock direct damage increased by 10% (96.25% vs 87.5%) with Path of Flame. DoT damage is not increased.
  • Primal Storm Elemental causes Primal Fire Elemental to despawn. Can’t have 2 pet bar pets out at the same time?
  • Sons of Flame don’t spawn when Primal Elementalist is taken

Math Reference: Crit Damage Calculations

Before I answer this question, I’ll cover how crit damage bonuses work, and how multiple sources interact.

Most critical damage bonuses increase the bonus damage portion only, eg: Elemental Fury’s 50% crit damage bonus results in 250% crits rather than 200% as per normal.

1+(1*(1+EF)) = 1+(1*(1+0.5)) = 1+(1*1.5) = 1+1.5 = 2.5

In other words: Crit Damage Bonus = (1+ Source A) * (1+ Source B) etc as multiple sources multiply together. There a few exceptions to this, however.

There is one other variation to this which is related to the Burning meta gem effects from Cataclysm & Mists of Pandaria, where the 3% Increased Critical Effect actually multiplies in before the damage bonuses. This also applies to the Tauren racial too, as Tauren Elemental Shaman get 256% crits rather than the 253% that would be otherwise expected.

( ( Base Critical Damage * Effect Bonus ) – 1 ) * ( 1 + Damage Bonus effect 1 ) * ( 1 + Damage Bonus effect 2 ) = Critical Strike Bonus

This is the complete formula for working out the critical strike bonus, but as far as I’m aware there are no Critical Effect bonuses in Warlords or Legion.

Once you have the Critical Strike Damage worked out, including this in the average damage of the spell is relatively easy:

Base Damage * (1 + Critical Chance * Critical Strike Damage) = Average Damage

This calculation can also be used for including other proc based effects, like Multistrike in Warlords (1 + MS% * 0.3 * 2), or the revamped Overload mastery for Elemental Shaman in Legion (1 + 0.75 * Mastery%)

Math Reference: Haste Calculations

I’m going to try to put together some reference notes for mathy questions I get on twitter.

Percentage based haste buffs multiply together, while rating based buffs are added to your current haste rating & then converted into a single haste percentage, then treated as one of the percentage effects

Formula: (1 + Haste%) * (1 + Haste%) * (1+Haste%) … – 1

Multiplying decimal values under 1 would result in a very small number, which is why we add the haste buffs to 1, and multiply the resulting values. To return to the expected value, we subtract 1 off the end.

eg: (1+0.3) * (1+0.05) * (1+0.25) – 1 = 70.625% haste

This isn’t quite how they are applied, even if the same result is reached. Haste buffs reduce the cast time of a spell by dividing it by 1+Haste%

eg: 2/(1+0.3) = 1.538

To apply multiple haste effects you keep dividing by each additional percentage source

eg: 2/(1+0.3)/(1+0.05)/(1+0.25) = 1.172

We get the same result if we just apply our total percentage from earlier

eg: 2/(1+0.70625) = 1.172

You can even reverse calculate the haste percentage

Base cast/New Cast = 1 + Haste %

2/1.172 = 1.70625

Elemental Feedback – Legion Alpha


Choices. That’s an important concept within Elemental priorities or rotations over the years. The choice of which shock to use, whether to use Lava Burst or Earth Shock in a given situation, or even if it’s worth using Chain Lightning vs Lightning Bolt in certain situations. These choices will still exist in Legion based on what we know so far, but I’m not convinced some of these are good choices to be making.

For starters, there’s still no clear choice between Earth Shock & Lava Burst when at high Maelstrom and Lava Burst is off cooldown. This has been an issue ever since Lava Burst gained the ability to generate Lightning Shield charges, as previously Earth Shock could be delayed in favour of Lava Burst.

Even though Lightning Shield charges have been replaced with Maelstrom, it’s still the same question, and the ultimate answer will most likely come from multiple SimulationCraft tests to confirm the “optimal” time to use it, which for Warlords turned out to be 15 rather than the 17 various guide sites would have you believe. Given that this can be roughly worked out to be 1.67 times the highest generation of a single spell, I expect the optimal Earth Shock use will be somewhere in the 60-75 Maelstrom range.

There are a couple of potential solutions here. The first is to reduce Maelstrom generation per spellcast, or even remove it from Overload. The second is to change either the max maelstrom amount, or reduce the maximum that Earth Shock can use, so that there is a “buffer” to help prevent wastage. Thirdly, and my personal preference, is to remove Maelstrom generation from Lava Burst altogether, which would mean that we’d return to the days of Lava Burst always trumping Earth Shock.

Target switching is an area where there will be some improvements, although with all shocks using Maelstrom for an additional effect it does have some interesting implications here. For example, if a target won’t live for more than 10 seconds it means any Maelstrom spent on Flame Shock for that target is wasted. Obviously the solution is to Earth Shock first, but if you have a low amount of Maelstrom then the time spent on that resource dump could deal less damage than a Lightning Bolt cast.

In most cases, I imagine the default behaviour will be to target switch with a Flame Shock and then go back to normal priorities.


I’ve been thinking some more about talents, with some suggestions around choices so that there’s an obvious “simple” talent with two more complicated options that would have different priorities based on personal preference, encounter types and so forth. Making sure there are function themes will mean that the relative power for single target or multi target damage will remain mostly consistent. The trick will be making the second & third talents options for advanced players about weighing up choices rather than the current “X is better than Y” mathematical choice.

Level 60
With the way that some proc effects are shaping up, eg: Elemental Focus (2x 20% bonus damage charges after a crit) or Elemental Empowerment (3% extra Nature damage after casting Fire spells & vice versa) it makes sense that Echo of the Elements would be an ideal choice to use so that rather than simply using Lava Burst whenever it is available, you are instead weaving it in between Earth Shock & Lightning Bolt to get more damage out. In other words, Echo is a “control” talent.

Elemental Blast, on the other hand, doesn’t offer much extra to anything, although it could trigger & benefit from both Empowerment effects. The talent it is replacing, Elemental Mastery, could be a better alternative here as a “burst” talent. This way players have a choice of how they want to play, and where the talent will give them the most gain.

Level 75
If Magnitude gets moved up to 90 (more on that later) Elemental Blast could easily be moved here as its replacement. I would lean towards a small revamp to it though, so the focus is more on the buff & maintaining it. I’d suggest making the damage the same as Lightning Bolt, removing the cooldown, and making the buff a 12-20 second percentage increase to either damage or secondary stats.

Elemental Fusion has some issues too, most notably that the 10% increase Surge chance conflicts with the no Surge chance effect from Control of Lava. My thought here would be to move the maelstrom generation for Lava Burst into the Elemental Fusion talent so that players can choose whether to have higher resource generation or not.

Level 90
This tier could be lean towards additional multitarget damage, although I think Lightning Rod needs a redesign so that it’s not something that could be used in the single target rotation with other buffs like Stormkeeper.

Assuming it’s redesigned, Lightning Rod vs Liquid Magma Totem would be a choice for advanced players, but there should be an “easier” option here as well. My thought would be to bring Magnitude up from 75 to 90, and redesign it as a passive damage bonus to Earthquake (which is more in theme with the name than random lava gouts)

Level 100
With Magnitude moving to 90, Storm Elemental has to make way for it. I would suggest moving it to the Level 100 talents, and merge part or all of Primal Elementalist into the basic elemental pets. This would solve potential issues with the Lightning Elemental artifact trait as well as reducing the potential overpoweredness that would come from having a 5 minute cooldown reduced to 4 minutes via Path of Elements, and then down to somewhere in the 2-3 minute range with other artifact traits. This way all three cooldown abilities could be balanced to be relatively equal, with Storm Elemental being the “easy” fire & forget option.

I’m also still not fond of the changes that are being made with Ascendance, where Lava Burst freecasting has now been removed in favour of turning Earth Shock into “Lava Shock”, a short duration fire dot. This could potentially work if Lightning Bolt also gets a similar treatment, so that as a Fire Ascendant you have a similar rotation to the base one but everything is now fire, as casting Lightning as a Fire Ascendant sounds a bit weird.

On “Cookie Cutters”


No, not those cookie cutters, although Ninja Bread Men are cool. “Cookie cutter” refers to a popular/predefined selection of options, or in WoW it refers to an “ideal” set of talents. There’s been some recent discussion about whether these are good, and whether players are too hard/hostile towards individuals who vary from the perceived idea.

There’s two parts to this problem, and I don’t think the problem lies with guide writers like myself.

Problem One: Player Demands

A lot of players want to know the absolute best options available, whether it’s talents, glyphs, trinkets, enchants or even race. In my guide I note that even though there is some variation, the difference between the best and worst races comes down to less than 1% of total DPS, but I still get asked questions about this and people still spend money race changing to the “best” one when conditions change.

Similar questions about regarding Best in Slot (or BiS) lists or on trinket optimization as well. For trinkets in most cases running sims will only confirm what you already expect: higher item level generally means better trinkets, taking into account how certain effects or stats interact with your class.

For example, Elemental players often ask about Prophecy of Fear vs Gaze of Sethe vs Core of the Primal Elements. Core is the obvious first choice here, as its effects multiply with talents & abilities to result in fairly large multipliers that go over 800% thanks to the damage and duration increases.

When considering Gaze vs Prophecy, Prophecy has a 5 ilvl advantage but has a unique effect that triggers off the number of casts in a 10 second window, and while it is on RPPM it isn’t affected by haste. The unique effect for Gaze is just a simple damage proc with RPPM affected by haste. It’s that difference in RPPM behaviour that swings things in favour of Gaze, as Elemental favours haste (after multistrike) and has haste buff off the T18 4pc with a fairly high uptime.

That said, the difference between these two trinkets is actually fairly small, with Gaze being only 1.4% better than Prophecy. When you consider that this difference is less than 100 dps overall, it’s a very very small portion of your overall damage, considering most players are now in the 60k-100k range in Hellfire Citidel.

The ultimate problem here is that a large number of players see things as binary options: either you select the best option, or you haven’t and you’re bad.

The solution is to try to educate people that while going for the best option may be an okay choice, going for an option that is almost but not quite the best option is also an okay choice. Players also need to realise that focusing on the ultimate end game best in slot set isn’t helpful in making the best choices about what gear is available to you right now. An upgrade is an upgrade, even if it’s not the theoretical best gear option an upgrade will help you do more damage.

As for talents, which the recent BlizzardWatch articles focus on, selecting a different talent from the one considered to be the most optimal may actually be better, depending on the players skill, play style, and other factors. I was a great fan of using Elemental Blast as my L90 talent back in Mists of Pandaria, while the popular and perceived best was Unleashed Fury. The difference between the two was actually fairly negligible, but most people used Unleashed Fury best everyone said it was the best. Even with L90 talents in Warlords of Draenor, I’m still advising players that while one may be “the best”, other talent options are still perfectly viable.

The TL;DR version of all this is that even though choices are X or Y or Z, evaluating them isn’t a case of X > Y > Z but rather X:100, Y:99.9, Z:99.8 and understanding where the differences are small enough to have no practical effect.

Problem Two: Actual Balancing

The other side of this is that there are a number of cases where certain options aren’t in this “almost the same” but are instead drastically worse than other options, for various reasons. Sometimes this is intentional, like with Elemental L100 talents, where once you get Core of the Elements (which is very useful with the T18 2pc bonus) the clear best choice is Elemental Fusion, so taking Storm Elemental or Liquid Magma is usually the clear wrong choice (LM is still good with AoE fights like Hellfire Assault).

I don’t have any Elemental examples of when talents are clearly sub optimal, although clear problems like the 6.0 version of Echo of the Elements (a proc making the next shock, Lava Burst or Earthquake not trigger the cooldown) have been fixed with newer versions (Echo now gives certain spells charges).

So when there are talents where the performance difference is vast, and there’s no qualitative bonuses to it (ie: something not defined by numbers), then there’s very little reason to take a particular talent.

This means that there is some onus on the Developer team to make sure that talents are reasonably balanced based on the talent tier intent. In Warlords a lot of talent tiers were designed to be different ways of doing the same thing, whereas in Legion the intent seems to be certain talents will be preferable in different situations. The Warlords method requires that balance between the talents is fairly even, whereas the Legion approach offers some lee-way because AoE talents don’t need to be perfectly balanced with constant throughput, burst damage, resource or cooldown enhancing talents.

The challenge in Legion for the developers will be making sure that players can easily understand when to use certain talents, but not to the point that there appears to be a clear “wrong” choice to players, ie: taking a single target talent over an AoE talent on a heavy AoE fight.

So are guide writers to blame?

One of the parts of this discussion has been around how guide writers have a tendency to write “absolute” answers.

How we, as a theorycrafting community, present advice that influences people’s behavior towards other players. Absolutist advice not only promotes a negative attitude, it’s counterproductive to the goal of improving play.
Source – BlizzardWatch – Side Effects of Cookie Cutter Builds

Unfortunately this is where we get into a negative feedback loop from Problem One mentioned above, where players demand to know the absolute best answer and won’t settle for anything else. I have had multiple questions on some of these subjects and have since decided that the sheer amount of time invested in some of them are not worth the effort (trinket rankings & best in slot lists). Other writers I have spoken to have bowed to pressure from players to change their guide to match the “accepted” preference, even when there is virtually no difference.

There are certainly some guides that just focus on these absolutes, but there are also a lot of guides that give qualitative reasoning for choices, and advice for both experienced and new players.

Part of the problem here is that many people believe guide writing & theorycrafting is some Arcane and/or Mystical Art that they could never hope to develop, but in practice it just comes down to basic logic & writing skills, with a little bit of spreadsheet knowledge on the side. If more people were involved in these areas (which is something many of us regularly say on Twitter) then I believe the WoW community as a whole would be better off.

So what’s all this mean?

In the end, everyone has to share some blame, but I believe the large portion of it falls on the WoW community at large and their expectations of Developers, Theorycrafters, Guide Writers and their fellow players. Certainly the Devs need to balance & design things well, and the guide writers should include more information on choices, but until the wider community stops the obsession with choices that make up less than 1% of their performance I don’t think anything will change.

Remember, the ultimate thing to remember is that this is all just a game, and we’re supposed to be having fun. While there’s sometimes a right answer or a wrong answer to character customization, the difference these choices make are a fairly small portion of how effective a player is at doing their job. Executing boss mechanics better will have a much larger impact on getting that first boss kill than trying to get a little bit more damage via a race change or obsessing about opening rotations.


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