AoE is poorly designed
The inspiration for writing this was some discussion about AoE finishers, so that’s where I’ll start.
AoE finishers and why they aren’t a panacea
During BfA (and Shadowlands beta), many Feral, Shadow and Subtlety players were very loudly asking for an AoE finisher/spender (I’ll just call them finishers from now on, the 2 terms are effectively interchangeable). The basis for this was frustration with the specs’ poor AoE damage and seeing that other specs that did have AoE finishers were performing better. Fast forward to Shadowlands and all 3 specs have AoE finishers in the form of Primal Wrath, Searing Nightmares and Black Powder, respectively.
The current state of the game is that two of those specs are pretty good on AoE (Subtlety more so than Shadow) and the third is still pretty awful. The reason? Numbers. Just like before the specs got their AoE finishers, the actual deciding factor is the tuning of the abilities the specs have, and Primal Wrath just happens to be weak. The biggest problem I have with all 3 of those abilities, however, is entirely unrelated to the specs’ overall performance. It’s that they all completely short circuit the AoE rotation.
Subtlety’s AoE rotation wasn’t particularly incredible gameplay before Shadowlands either, but now it effectively boils down to alternating Shuriken Storm and Black Powder. Feral is more or less in the same boat, just with a little bit of tab Rake left at low target counts and a different direct damage generator depending on whether Berserk is active or not. Shadow is somewhat saved at low target counts by Shadowflame Prism, which forces it to cast 2 additional abilities, but once you go past around 6–7 targets it’s over. You switch over to the incredibly engaging rotation of Mind Sear -> Searing Nightmare -> Searing Nightmare, repeat.
So the result is that the specs still depend entirely on the tuning of their abilities to do AoE damage (just like any other spec), but the engaging AoE rotations of Shadow and Feral died in the process.
Well designed AoE
So the title of the article isn’t entirely accurate, there are some specs with fairly well designed AoE rotations. Here’s a few examples of some different approaches.
Assassination, multiple finishers
Not a spec that does particularly good AoE damage, but the way it plays on AoE is pretty good. You have 2 generators (Garrote and Fan of Knives) and 2 primary finishers (Rupture and Crimson Tempest), most of which are DoTs which also means you end up having to switch between targets to manage the DoTs on each of them. This means you’re not just doing your ST rotation but switching out your finisher, but are actually engaging with the additional targets rotationally.
Retribution, multiple generators
Too slow for me personally, but a good example of a spec that effectively continues doing its ST rotation but with a different finisher. This means that Retribution avoids the short circuiting that happens for Feral, Shadow and Subtlety. It continues using all of its different short-CD generators, because there isn’t a distinct AoE generator that supplants the ones normally used.
Affliction, how DoT AoE can actually work
Quite important to note: this is about Affliction without Sow the Seeds (as StS partially short circuits the AoE rotation, while Malefic Rapture is a better example). The way Affliction handles AoE is one of the 2 main ways I think DoT spec AoE should be handled. You set up your DoTs on as many targets as you possibly can, extend them (via Darkglare) and then have a window of spamming your finisher to deal damage based on how many DoTs you managed to ramp up to.
Enhancement, synergistic abilities with no true finisher
Enhancement is a bit of a weird one. While it does have an ability that is technically its finisher (Chain Lightning/Lightning Bolt) which changes depending on target count (similar to Retribution), it isn’t a big powerhouse in terms of direct damage (unlike Retribution). Instead it works together with the rest of the AoE kit to create a smooth feedback loop. Chain Lightning, Crash Lightning and Stormstrike are the core of this, taking up 3 out of 4 GCDs most of the time. Each of the 3 abilities buffs the other 2, making it quite clear that they’re meant to be used together.
A note on feedback loops
There is such a thing as too powerful feedback loops, and a good current example of it is Destruction. This spec is able to reach a point where Rain of Fire sustains itself, leading to just repeatedly casting Rain of Fire because there is no longer any need to generate resources with other abilities. This critical mass of self-feedback looping should probably be avoided, as it situationally short circuits AoE rotations to an even greater degree than Shuriken Storm -> Black Powder.
The two angles on DoT AoE
DoT specs have had a hard time when it comes to AoE for a long time. Most times when DoT specs have been good at AoE have been when they’ve effectively stopped being DoT specs. Examples of this are Affliction with Sow the Seeds and Shadow with Searing Nightmare/4set. Here are two ways of making DoT specs actually use DoTs as their source of AoE damage.
Ramp -> burst
This essentially describes how Affliction does AoE in Shadowlands, both as described above and to a lesser extent with Sow the Seeds. There are two distinct phases to this type of AoE.
The first is the setup or ramp phase, where you try to get your DoTs spread to as many targets as possible. This can be a mix of “manually” applying them (Agony, Unstable Affliction, Siphon Life) and mass-applying them (Seed of Corruption, Soul Rot). During this phase you’re not doing much damage yet.
The second phase leverages the previously built up DoTs in order to burst. Malefic Rapture directly hits enemies depending on the number of DoTs present, whereas Sow the Seeds is more indiscriminate and instead uses the other DoTs to fuel more casts of Seed of Corruption (via Agony and Soul Rot with the legendary/soulbind interactions). Another angle on this could be an effect like an AoE Exsanguinate which makes the DoTs tick out very quickly all at once.
During the second phase DoTs will start dropping off, leading to a reset back to the ramping phase.
This style of AoE relies heavily on the targets actually living long enough to complete both phases, which takes some time. This should be rewarded with a bigger burst payoff than immediate burst AoE when you do get that time, however.
Ramp -> sustain
It seems like this is the fantasy the Affliction set bonuses in Sepulcher are aiming for, but failed to hit. Another example is Shadow in Legion.
The idea is quite simple: you put up your DoTs and try to keep them there for as long as possible, because the DoTs themselves are the source of your damage. This has the same sort of downside as the ramp -> burst style where targets need to actually live rather than being bursted down (even by the ramp -> burst DoT specs).
One way of enabling this style of AoE is a Mark of the Crane-style buff based on the amount of DoTs currently out, which buffs the damage of those DoTs.
AoE tuning philosophy
This style of AoE would need to have a higher DPS ceiling than the “ramp -> burst” style, leading to something like this:
Overall damage on an infinitely long fight: “Ramp -> sustain” > “direct damage sustain” (think Enhancement or Assassination) > “ramp -> burst” > “direct damage burst” (think Retribution or Fire)
Very short burst (5–10 seconds?): “Direct damage burst” > “ramp -> burst” > “direct damage sustain” > “ramp -> sustain”
“Long” burst (20 seconds?): “Ramp -> burst” > “direct damage burst” > “ramp -> sustain” > “direct damage sustain”
Of course specs would be on a spectrum within each category so it would never be this clean.
What even is AoE?
A last point that should’ve maybe been at the beginning. A problem I have with a lot of specs is that they go directly from ST to full on AoE rotations, which is fine if that’s how a few specs function, but it’s too common. I think it’s much healthier if specs have a ST rotation, then gradually add AoE abilities and then finally reach their full AoE rotation at some point. Generally I’d look for something like ST, 2–4 cleave and 5+ AoE as a general rule, with the transition in the “cleave zone” depending a bit on spec.
Having this transition zone of 2–4 targets allows for more interesting gameplay on smaller M+ packs and council fights in raids. Immediately starting to play full AoE makes those fights quite dull, particularly with how uninteresting most AoE rotations are.
It also means there is more of a change when adding targets for short periods of a fight, and you care how many targets get added. Is Lihuvim summoning a pile or 2 of small adds that need true AoE? Or is this a wave where it’s a fixate add that gets CC’d off to the side, a shield add and a sentry so you only have 2–3 targets to hit? For a lot of specs in the current game, there’s no difference. They slam their full AoE rotation either way.
Burst OP, DoTs too weak, stop making the game all about lame AoE rotations.