Blizzard has had a persistent problem with creating a balanced healing composition. Despite their efforts, certain classes continue to dominate the rosters of high-end guilds. Why is this, and what can be done to fix it?
Since inception, World of Warcraft has had an issue with healer “metas”. However, this problem has been exacerbated over the past several expansions. Certain classes and specializations have consistently dominated the rosters of serious mythic raid teams. Whereas other classes and specializations have seen nearly no (or in some cases, literally no) showing on healing rosters. In Warcraft’s most recent tier, Ny’alotha, the continued dominance of Discipline Priest and Holy Paladin continued from previous tiers and expansions.
According to the statistics above, from the first 50 kills of Mythic N’Zoth (with a total of ~200 healers included in the sample), only 6 Restoration Druids, 4 Holy Priests, and 2 Mistweaver Monks were present. This stratification continues to become more rigid as you limit results to samples from the top 20, or top 10.
Furthermore, this issue is not just a result of the current tier of content, recent boss design, or new systems such as corruption. Let’s look back at the first 50 kills of Mythic Queen Azshara from The Eternal Palace raid instance.
In fact, healer diversity was even worse in Eternal Palace than in Ny’alotha. According to these statistics, only 15 Restoration Shaman, 4 Restoration Druids, and 1 Mistweaver Monk (…and 0 Holy Priests) were in the top 50 kills of the final encounter in Eternal Palace.
Why is this the case? This issue is multifaceted and presents several dilemmas for game designers. What is the proper metric to use to evaluate balance? Is it raw throughput or HPS? Certainly not. Is it the amount of damage provided? Not entirely. There are many factors that lead to the issue of poor healer representation and diversity in high-end mythic content. We will explore some of these problems below.
One of the factors that is often forgotten in throughput balance discussions is the distinct advantage of damage reduction over pure throughput via healing effects. It is almost always preferential to reduce or prevent players from taking damage rather than healing it after the fact. This is for obvious reasons; damage reduction prevents people from dying, whereas healing effects are not useful if the preceding damage results in a death. Furthermore, damage reduction is often far more mana efficient because it will not result in overhealing or otherwise wasted healing casts.
When considering the damage reduction capabilities among the healing specializations, there are stark differences in both the strength of the damage reduction and the number of damage reduction options available. Discipline Priests are the clear winners in the damage reduction arena, which is a large reason why they are dis-proportionally represented in high-end healing rosters. Their Power Word: Shield (especially with Rapture up) provides a strong targeted damage absorb without a cooldown. Additionally, they have access to a raid cooldown, Power Word: Barrier. Finally, on top of all these advantages with damage reduction, Discipline Priests also have the best external cooldown in the game at a 40% damage reduction from Pain Suppression.
This leaves Restoration Shaman, Restoration Druids, and Mistweaver Monks who all lack a reliable way to reduce damage. Restoration Druids have a short cooldown 20% damage reduction external in Ironbark; Mistweaver Monks have access to Life Cocoon which provides a damage absorb.
Considering the above, one of the main issues is very clear – there are a few specializations that have both on-demand damage reduction or absorbs as well as the best damage reduction cooldowns, while other specializations have zero access to damage reduction tools. This, on its own, is not necessarily a game-breaking problem. However, when some specializations have all of the tools and the other specializations have none of them, this becomes highly problematic.
Damage Dealt to Boss
Perhaps more than any other category, the balance among healer damage is the most egregious. Discipline Priest and Holy Paladin consistently outperform other healers in terms of both damage throughput and efficiency. Outside of the high-end raiding and mythic+ environment, many people may not see this as a significant issue. However, I think this is a systemic problem with how many people view their job as a healer. JB put it best:
healing parses are actually a big part of the problem. the goal for a healer shouldn’t be to do the most healing possible. that always includes inefficient padding and heal-sniping. instead aim to do the LEAST healing necessary while still keeping ppl alive and then fill with dmg https://t.co/cqjNk1MB7m— jb (@jdotb) June 19, 2020
“…aim to do the LEAST healing necessary while still keeping ppl alive and then fill with dmg.” This should always be the mindset of healers who are trying to provide the highest positive impact in their raid team. While I love to get healer parses, and think it is a super fun thing to do while on farm, it is not the priority on progression. Any healing past the point of the raid not being in danger of dying are casts that could be otherwise used to do damage to priority targets.
With that being said, where did healer damage stack up in Mythic Ny’alotha? Well, Discipline Priests and Holy Paladins yet again reigned supreme.
As you can see above, Priests and Paladins are far above the other healers in terms of the damage they offer. However, the situation is actually far worse than the chart above suggests. In addition to just doing more damage, their damage is far more efficient as well. While Shamans and Druids can do damage (albeit much less than Priest and Paladin), their damaging abilities provide zero healing or utility. Whereas, Priests and Paladins both top the damage charts while also contributing to their healing rotation and throughput at the same time. For example, Crusader Strike enables Holy Paladins to cast more Holy Shock. Smite is one of the primary ways for Discipline Priests to both deal damage and to heal. Compare this to Shamans who can use Lightning Bolt and Lava Burst to deal damage. These abilities provide no benefit outside of their direct role of dealing damage.
This is not to say that Shamans and Druids are exempt from what I’ll call “JB’s Rule” (see tweet above). They should absolutely still be contributing damage whenever possible. However, the fact that Paladins and Priests can use their damaging abilities while also increasing their healing throughput at the same time allows them to have more opportunities where JB’s Rule applies to them.
Balancing Based on Throughput
While there are certainly even more problems with healer balance, damage reduction/absorbs and damage seem to be the largest sources of balancing difficulty. As I said above, these are not inherently massive issues on their own. However, combine the fact that certain classes are substantially better at reducing damage taken, while also dealing considerably more damage, while also topping the raw throughput charts, and you have a clear case for major specialization imbalance.
The idea of different classes and specializations being better at different things is good and healthy for diversity of healers. However, when two specializations dominate all aspects of healing there is a serious problem. Sure, healing throughput balance is not bad; the healers are all within ~1σ of each other. Yet, when you factor in all the other benefits that Discipline Priests and Paladins bring, you leave raid teams with little choice.
If Blizzard wants Druids and Shamans to be “masters” of throughput, while Discipline provides damage, and Paladins provide excellent raid wide damage reduction – great. However, that means that Druids and Shamans ought to significantly outpace Discipline and Holy Paladins in raw throughput to balance out the large benefits that those specializations bring to different aspects of the raid composition. Even if Restoration Druids and Shamans were the top throughput healers, but Discipline Priests and Paladins were close, then the benefits of damage reduction and damage done will outweigh any minor difference.
Where does this problem stem from? Blizzard, and the broader Warcraft community, often puts too much stock on balancing the healing meters and parses. This goes back to JB’s tweet above. Parsing on progression does not matter to high end raid teams. Balancing your healers around that metric while giving significant advantages to particular specializations in aspects that are not reflected on the healing meter creates a public perception and (what I’m assuming to be) an internal Blizzard balancing problem.
Blizzard has several clear options. First, have all forms of damage reduction be properly displayed on healing meters and parses as a part of healing. This would also likely require some cooperation from WarcraftLogs, Details, and other resources and add-ons. Once this accomplished, then you can create a more fair balancing which revolves around healer throughput. However, this ignores the damage done aspect of healing – which is significant.
Second, completely throw the “balance healers by throughput” book out the window. Both internally at Blizzard and within the community. Let throughput healers dominate throughput; let damage dealing healers dominate damage; let damage reduction healers dominate reduction; BUT do not let the same class dominate several (or all, as is the case right now) of those categories at the same time.
While I cannot offer a precise solution to the glaring issue of healer balance in retail Warcraft, I hope this post can serve to consolidate the community’s thoughts on healer balance while also amplifying the message. This post could have continued on further with more issues, potential solutions, and a variety of commentary. However, I do not want to make the post so long that it is completely unapproachable to random visitors. With that said, I plan to continue writing and tweeting about this issue as long as it continues to plague the healing community. Be sure to check back often for a follow-up post to continue the conversation and highlight any changes throughout Shadowlands. Finally, we’d love if you could help spread this post to serve as a further signal amplifier to Blizzard. Happy Healing!