Thursday, October 14, 2010

Healing is a transferable skill

When I have an idea for a blog post, but no time to write a full post, I note the idea in an e-mail to myself. One such idea, fallout from the Great Skill Debate, was about transferable and un-transferable skills learned when raiding: The transferable skills are those where you learn how to play your class and role well, and can be transferred to the next boss fight. The un-transferable skills are those where you learn the scripted Simon Says moves of a particular boss, which won’t help you for any other encounter.

I was thinking about that idea this week due to patch 4.0.1 of World of Warcraft, because I can’t remember any other patch or expansion which did so much to reset the transferable skills, changing the way in which many classes are played. I started playing my druid, first with a healing spec, then with a moonkin spec, and was surprised how different that felt from before. With the spells having the same names and icons as before, it was particularly noticeable for druid healing that the same spells now had very different effects. On my first dungeon run I kept wondering what effect was always dispelling the Thorns buff I put on the tank, until I noticed that the duration had been slashed from minutes to seconds. Rejuvenate has a much shorter heal over time effect now, while Healing Touch is a lot beefier. Druid healing now resembles priest healing more than it did before.

As moonkin I not only had some new and different spells, but also a new game mechanic, with eclipses now not being random events any more, but being triggered by a defined number of spells. As I was soloing that was a huge improvement: While in the old system the mob was dead when the eclipse triggered, and then the eclipse ended before I reached the next mob, in the new system you are automatically under the effect of one eclipse half of the time. That plus Starsurge boosted my damage output significantly.

Then I started looking into the talents of the next character, my paladin, and noticed that there were even more changes for the paladin than for the druid. In this case the damage output was nerfed, but with retribution paladins having been so seriously overpowered that was only to be expected. But again I found new game mechanics, holy power in the case of paladins, and enough changes to all spells and abilities to again change completely how this class is played. I haven’t studied my other three level 80 characters in detail yet, warrior, priest, and mage, but just seeing that there is no more defense stat assures me that the life of my tank will be fundamentally changed as well.

Now I’m happy that there are still over 7 weeks until Cataclysm comes out, because that gives me time to acquaint myself with my characters which feel so new. As much as I like the feature of WoWTal to export a talent build directly into World of Warcraft, I do not want to simply copy and paste the most popular build for my various classes without thinking. There are three reasons why I prefer to study what the talents do and try to figure out the best build for myself: 1) It is more fun. 2) I gain a deeper understanding of my character’s skills, which allows me to play him better. And 3) the most popular build is often a raid build, and not necessarily optimal for a non-raiding character doing 5-man dungeons or quests.

Many people believe that there is no room for that sort of thinking and understanding in MMORPGs. Get the boss strategy from YouTube, get the best build from Elitist Jerks, and then train your spell rotation on a target dummy to get the “muscle memory” in your fingers for the highest damage per second, and you end up with an approach to raiding that doesn’t require thinking. It reduces the whole exercise to the un-transferable skills that are specific to each encounter, and have nothing to do with being able to play your class well. But that unthinking approach not only runs into trouble when a patch changes skills, it also is inherently unsuited for playing a healer. You can’t play a healer without thinking, without observing who is what health level and going down how fast, and then making a decision about what kind of healing spell to use to save everybody. Maybe the need to think and decide instead of just mashing buttons makes healing inherently somewhat slower than dealing damage. But a healer who doesn’t pay attention for 5 seconds can cause a wipe, while a damage dealer only risks to lower his position on the damage meter. That is the challenge I love.

As I only raid with healers, I prefer the thinking and understanding approach to talents and spell rotations over the muscle memory approach. It might take me a bit longer until I fully understand all the changes of patch 4.0.1, but that initial effort will pay off: Playing a healer well is a transferable skill, which is independent of which boss the raid or group is tackling. And fully understanding the fine differences between various healing spells enables me to choose the right one in many different situations. No video guide from the internet can replace that.

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