Why the Stellar Drift change is good for the game

First of all, the specific numbers used for the current Stellar Drift rework are not there yet. That’s not really what this is about, although I’ll briefly touch on it. What’s good about the change is the principle of the change and one of the potential interpretations of the philosophy behind it (even if it’s not the most likely interpretation).

Specifics of the Stellar Drift rework

To get this out of the way first: Stellar Drift’s rework is moving it into being a burst AoE talent. People who are used to picking it for sustained AoE will obviously be confused by this, but it’s good for the health of the talent row. Why? Because there’s already another talent on the row for sustained AoE: Twin Moons. Having 2 sustained AoE talents on the same row just means the one with the best numbers and most practical application will always get used. Currently on live, that’s Stellar Drift, because the numbers are bigger, it requires much fewer GCDs to get value from and for some reason it even lets you move completely freely.

The free movement shouldn’t even be part of Stellar Drift in the first place. It’s absurd that a ranged spec gets to negate the intended “core weakness” of ranged, movement, just because there’s more than 1 nameplate on their screen. That part of the talent should be removed and turned into its own talent in place of Renewal. The shape of this talent could be anything from Spiritwalker’s Grace through Norgannon’s Sagacity to Ice Floes, it doesn’t really matter.

Now on to the numbers for the Stellar Drift rework. The main problem with the current iteration on PTR is that a 15 second CD doesn’t really make it a burst AoE talent, it just makes it an awkward sustained AoE talent. In order to move it solidly into a role as a burst AoE talent, the CD needs to be longer and the damage amplification higher to compensate. It’s the same issue that Brutal Slash currently has for Feral, where the damage and CD are so short that it fails to be the correct pick for burst AoE. If Stellar Drift wants to be the burst AoE talent, it should probably have a CD of 30+ seconds, so you’d pick it for fights with add waves, like Lady Inerva Darkvein, but not for sustained multitarget like Huntsman Altimor.

Why the rework is good philosophically

There’s two main parts to this: ranged mobility and burst’s inherent value.

Ranged mobility is meant to be a fundamental weakness of the role compared to melee who have full mobility as a strength.

Burst is inherently more valuable than sustained damage, so there needs to be a tradeoff in order to gain access to that burst.

This will all be based on the assumption that these are the goals behind the rework, even though in reality the rework is most likely focused primarily on the first point only. Not just out of naivety, but also because it’s a very good example of how to approach the second point.

Ranged mobility

A big part of why ranged is historically better than melee is that ranged have much more freedom of positioning. Melee have to be on top of the boss, otherwise they’re not contributing damage. Ranged can be anywhere within 40/45 yards, which means they can be basically anywhere in the boss room, but they could also just be in melee.

This freedom of positioning is why the actual act of reaching those positions has to be the weakness or drawback of being ranged. If ranged was able to do full DPS while moving, like Balance on multitarget or Beastmastery in every situation, you could just replace all of your melee with those ranged specs and make them sit in melee when needed.

Unfortunately for melees, the actual punishment for moving as ranged has been massively reduced over time, while mechanics that punish melee, usually by forcing them off the boss or capping the number of melee you can even bring, are still going strong. This has to change if bringing more melees is actually going to happen. Ranged need to be punished harder for movement, especially handling movement poorly, and realistically they also need to do less DPS than melee even while both are just standing still and DPSing. Otherwise you’d still just avoid melee in favor of ranged, because the freedom of positioning, even if moving is punished harder, allows for so much more safety and better handling of mechanics.

Burst’s inherent value

There are a few different things that give burst inherent value, while there is no inherent value to sustained DPS. The main advantages of burst are:

  • Eliminating threats before they kill you
  • Freedom to deal with mechanics outside of CD windows

Eliminating threats

The first point is probably the most obvious one. If you burst down an add, it can no longer hurt you. There is another element to this, however.
Bursting down the add also means that the sustained DPS specs can’t reach their potential and thus looks even worse.

Let’s imagine 2 specs:
Spec A: does 200 DPS for 10 seconds, then 50 DPS for 20 seconds.
Spec B: does 100 DPS at all times.

Now let’s have an add spawn with 3000 health. If both specs are hitting it full time, it dies in 10 seconds. Spec A will have done 2000 damage to it and spec B will have done 1000. Spec A was clearly more useful in getting rid of the add.

Okay, how about a different add? This time it’ll have 6000 health. Now it takes 30 seconds to die, with each spec doing 3000 damage. This is the best case scenario for Spec B, the sustained spec, and yet it did the same damage as Spec A.

This is the reality of how Blizzard balances specs. They only look at the overall damage, without considering that being bursty has the inherent advantage of being able to guarantee that you get most of your damage, while the sustained spec needs more time to match that damage.

If sustained DPS specs did noticeably more overall damage, there would be a reason to bring them in order to meet long-term DPS checks like boss enrages. Unfortunately, boss enrages are less and less relevant (mostly acting as a safeguard against bringing too many healers/tanks), and when they are relevant, they happen to line up with burst specs’ CDs, making them the correct pick anyway.

M+ is also very heavily focused on burst, which has put even more pressure on specs to be burstier, which is what Blizzard has moved towards: just make everybody a burst spec.

Freedom outside of CDs

The other big advantage of being focused on CDs is that you lose less damage by playing mechanics or doing special assignments during the majority of the time where your CDs aren’t ready. Just to take an extreme example, Fire in Ny’alotha did something like 80% of its damage per 2 minutes in the 12 second Combustion window.

That means that all you really had to do was play those 12 seconds per 2 minutes correctly, and then you could run around and soak things or spam Polymorph or whatever, and it didn’t impact your damage very much. Essentially, you do extremely high DPS for a short time, and then much lower DPS outside of those. Sacrificing some of those low DPS seconds in order to do other things doesn’t hurt very much.

The sustained spec meanwhile has a much more consistent DPS, meaning it hurts much more to be assigned to a special mechanic. You also can’t just time your CDs so you use them when there’s no risk of a mechanic forcing you to stop DPSing, because your DPS is much more consistent.

What does this have to do with Stellar Drift?

The first thing is that the Stellar Drift rework is reining in Balance’s extreme amount of mobility, adding back some of that weakness to movement that should be inherent to all ranged. This seems like something most people agree is fair, so not much reason to go deeper on it.

The second is that, especially with the current numbers, Stellar Drift is now a DPS loss in terms of overall, sustained damage compared to no talent at all, or especially compared to Twin Moons. Why is that a good thing? Because it’s an increase in burst AoE. You’re being asked to sacrifice sustained DPS in order to gain burst. This could be a great first step towards a consistent philosophy where that is the case. Burst specs/talents get to do more damage during their burst, and still keep the advantage of being able to eliminate dangerous targets, but sustained specs/talents do more overall damage. Now it’s no longer just always correct to pick the burst option, because finally you’re giving up something in order to get it.

This is something I would love to see applied to every spec and talent in the game. Want burst? Okay, but you’ll do less damage overall. Warlocks no longer defaulting to Dark Soul, because Soul Conduit/Creeping Death/Channel Doomfire are (significantly) better for sustained damage. Want to play Fire with a huge DPS CD called Combustion? That’s fine and you’ll do massive burst AoE during the CD, but over the course of a longer pull the Survival guy will beat you with his sustained damage.

Is this actually going to change anything in the grand scheme of things?

No, it isn’t. This is probably just an accident because Blizzard tried to reduce Balance’s mobility. They’ll continue to let ranged do the same damage and move pretty freely, making melee undesirable. They’ll also continue to let Fire do the same overall damage as Survival, and even continue to let Fire reduce the CD of Combustion to make the problem even worse. Sustained and melee specs will still be undesirable, especially because the encounter designers are incapable of designing fights that lean into either of those things, instead punishing them via burst DPS checks, spreading out and bosses stomping the floor.

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