Elemental Disharmony – When a Rotation is Broken

Leaving utility spells/mechanics aside, the biggest problem for Elemental in terms of competitiveness is how single target damage output is (usually) lower than other specs. The core issue there is that there are four subsets of spells based on their secondary interactions:

  • Overload spells: Affected by Crit/Haste/Mastery in the same way (ie: Lighting Bolt)
  • Non-Overload spells: Affected by Crit/Haste in the same way, no Mastery interaction (ie: Earth Shock)
  • Lava Burst: Affected by Haste/Mastery, no Crit interaction
  • Double Haste Interaction: The DPET (damage per execute time) increases as the GCD decreases and the number of hits per cast increases as an additional haste interaction. Not modified by Mastery. Eg: Flame Shock, Fire Elemental

Fire Elemental

Fire Ele is the baseline DPS cooldown, which acts as a separate source of damage in the same style as the Warlock pet cooldowns. Unlike the Warlock pets however, Fire Elemental has no direct or indirect interaction with the specs Mastery effect which means the cooldown power increases less relative to item level.

There is a small maelstrom gain from Flame Shock ticks while the Fire Elemental is up, but at 3 per tick with 15% haste over the full 30 second life span the gain is only 51 Ms, not even enough for a single Earth Shock cast. Destructions Infernal by comparison generates 1 soul fragment every 0.5 seconds, returning 6 full soul shards while up which is enough for 3 Chaos Bolt casts.

Further to this the Elemental Fury passive (50% extra crit bonus damage) does not actually apply to Fire Elemental. This means Crit affects Fire Elemental by a third less than other spells.

Lava Burst

Lava Burst has its own interaction group thanks to the auto-crit mechanic, which is often cited as a reason why the Elemental Fury passive exists & vice versa. This is because if a spell has no interaction with Crit then it would not be a desirable stat unless there was another effect pushing the other way. Again using Destruction as a comparison, Chaos Bolt also has an auto-crit mechanic but instead allows damage to scale with crit chance while only having a 100% crit damage bonus vs Elementals 150%.

The problem with Lava Burst not interacting with Crit is that there is an eventual point where Lightning Bolt will deal more damage on average, due to the fact that Lightning Bolt has a higher base Spellpower coefficient and directly scales with Crit. It depends on talent choices & the quantity of haste/mastery, ranging from crit percentages in the high 50’s and up.

Ascendance does have the Crit % to Damage bonus conversion effect, and when compared against Lighting Bolt the damage gap between the two spells actually increases slightly as Crit increases. However this is dependent on the difference in spell coefficients not increasing any further.


Returning again to one of my favourite design choices to disagree with. Mastery is not a highly valued stat for Elemental, partially because of negative feedback loops & other interactions (or more the lack thereof).

In any situation where an automatic/additional overload proc is granted there is zero additional damage gained on that from Mastery since Overload is a chance base effect. Fortunately some talents related to this are being removed in 8.1 but there are still two in place: Surge of Power (additional 1-3 Lightning Bolt overload procs after casting Earth Shock) and Stormkeeper (automatically triggers Overload on next 2 CL/LB casts). The mechanics are slightly different between the two, so for any SoP affected Lightning Bolt it will have the standard overload roll and then a separate process to generate the 1-3 extra overloads which is not based on mastery. Stormkeeper merely changes that overload proc chance to 100%, effectively ignoring your mastery stat completely.

Mastery also increases maelstrom generation but has a negative feedback loop. As more maelstrom is generated it means an increase in the number of spenders cast and thus a decrease in the number of generators cast, reducing the value of Mastery. Increases in Haste will always maintain the same ratio of generators to spenders, 5.45:1 when looking at Lightning Bolt with 50% mastery, but Mastery causes the ratio to range from 7.5:1 at 0% to 4.29:1 at 100%. This ends up causing a slight negative feedback loop, which reduces the per-percentage damage gain by 12% when comparing 1% Mastery with 100%.

Elemental Fury

The extra 50% bonus crit damage from this passive is intended to make up for the fact that Lava Burst has no crit interaction, but now that there are additional sources of chance based critical strikes this is less important. It’s somewhat surprising that this passive is still in the game when the ideal secondary stat setup is has 50-60% of the total rating as Crit.

Cooldown Stacking

One issue that has contributed to Elementals performance problems are the cooldowns available to the spec. We’ve already discussed the mechanic issues with Fire Elemental, and while I don’t want to get into a discussion about talents in this post I will need to bring up Ascendance.

Going back to the days of Warlords of Draenor there was an expansion long quest chain which resulted in each player getting a legendary ring with a shared role group cooldown. For DPS players (both melee and ranged) it involved a damage bonus and an AoE burst from the initiating player based on damage dealt while the bonus was up. As the damage bonus was fairly large it resulted in players stacking as many cooldowns with it as possible, but as the ring cooldown was 2 minutes and Ascendance (which was the primary class cooldown at the time) had a 3 minute cooldown. When looking at whether to save Ascendance for every second ring cooldown or using it as soon as it was up, it turned out to essentially be even either way. Not long after the ring was in regular use the Ascendance cooldown was reduced from 3 minutes to 2 minutes, but did virtually nothing to change the overall performance standings.

So how does this relate to the current game state? Fire Elemental is the base spec cooldown while Ascendance is a L100 talent option, but neither of them actually affect the other. For most other specs there are positive interactions: Mages stack their spec cooldowns with Rune of Power (damage bonus + Arcane’s damage bonus, Frosts haste bonus or Fire’s combustion), Warlocks can stack their demon summon cooldown with their Dark Soul variants (Destro gets more shard generation + more crit damage). At best Elemental has no interaction, and if the Storm Elemental talent is taken then there’s more damage to be gained by de-syncing them due to the increased cast time buff SE generates for Chain Lighting & Lighting Bolt.

Stacking cooldowns with Bloodlust, potions & trinket with these cooldown abilities results in a lot of burst damage. Say for instance two specs do 15k base DPS, and have two 20% bonus damage cooldowns that last for 15 seconds, but while one is additive the other multiplies. Spec A does 15,000 * (1 + 0.2 + 0.2) = 21,000 DPS but Spec B gets 15,000 * (1 + 0.2) * (1 + 0.2) = 21,600 DPS. It’s only a 2.86% difference in this example but you can see how additional multiplying bonuses can continue to escalate this.

An additional problem is that the power of Ascendance comes from the difference between the normal rotation & straight Lava Burst spam (which can be diminished based on talents taken) rather than being a normal damage or stat bonus.

Lightning Bolt & Rotational Balance

Patch 8.1 increased the single target damage of Elemental considerably, to the point where the spec could be considered “viable” on the damage output alone. However this is largely on the back of a buff to Lightning Bolt damage which causes problems with spell/talent balance.

SpellPre 8.1 SP%8.1 SP%Pre 8.1 vs LB8.1 vs LB
Lighting Bolt50.3125%70.4%100%100%
Elemental Blast63%63%125.22%89.49%
Lava Burst53.13%53.13%105.59%75.45%

The fact that Lightning Bolt does more damage than it used to vs these other spells throws the balance of talents & even the rotation out. Let’s look at the Level 15 & 60 talents.

Level 15

Earthen Rage vs Echo of the Elements vs Elemental Blast

Echo & Elemental Blast have their values tied into the damage difference vs Lighting Bolt, as both replace the filler with different spells. Elemental Blast is clearly weaker now, especially since it does not generate Maelstrom. Echo will increase the frequency of Lava Burst casts, and even though it always crits & generates more Maelstrom its value in replacing filler casts is reduced.

This results in Earthen Rage being the best choice of the row as a simple logic puzzle if we assume that the row was perfectly balanced prior to 8.1 (which it wasn’t).

Level 60

Master of the Elements vs Storm Elemental vs Liquid Magma

MotE’s power is directly tied to your Lava Burst cast frequency, so if you’re not taking Echo it loses some value. Liquid Magma Totem just has no interaction with anything else so while it doesn’t lose anything there’s no real gains either. Storm Elemental is the big winner here, as it adds an interaction with Lighting Bolt so a 40% gain for that turns into a sizeable gain for SE. This gain is large enough that with sufficient Crit it’s not worth casting Lava Burst until the pet expires.

The Degenerative Result

The end result is that while Lava Burst would usually be the highest damage spell we’re now seeing 40% of damage from Lightning Bolt & 7% from Lava Burst, as per this example from Gistwiki (link) . A comparison to a log from Oct 31 (8.0) shows Lava Burst as 30% of total damage and Lighting Bolt at 14% (link)

When you look at spell counts outside of Ascendance we see a change from 13.4/min in 8.0 to 7.23/min in 8.1, which is a 48% reduction and a lot higher than simply dropping Echo of the Elements would cause. Given that Lava Burst is one of the two “big finisher” spells it feels odd to have the cast frequency reduced this much. We can see that it’s not just an Echo difference when there are gaps between casts that are longer than 8 seconds when there is a single Lava Burst to start the fight, along with Bloodlust, but then the next cast isn’t until 28 seconds into the fight.

A change at this level is what I would call a “degenerative rotation” where it’s ideal to just spam your filler spell and ignore others. This is the result of having a spec with so many inter-connected spells & blindly buffing the filler. Elemental may do more damage now than before but it comes at a high cost.

Spreadsheet Reference

If you want to look at the calculations I used when working on this post you can find them here but remember they are in my slightly chaotic not-designed-to-be-friendly-to-other-people format. There’s a lot of basic spell scaling math here.


About binkenstein
I'm a geek, living in Christchurch, New Zealand.

2 Responses to Elemental Disharmony – When a Rotation is Broken

  1. Brutallis says:

    Replying so I can sign up for future posts.

  2. Dee says:

    If there’s one thing I want to pick out of here, it’s this: the idea of Lava Burst as a “big finisher” spell. I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it has been for a while.

    Lava Burst is Mind Blast– a short CD semi-filler with enough damage (for now) to make it desirable over your filler, but mostly useful for resource generation.

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