Tuesday, January 27, 2015

WoW Analysis: Master Marksman

In the case of most games, there's often something at the present to scrutinize. However, despite this fact being far too true in some cases, past implementations can be worth analyzing as well. By analyzing a game mechanic or design choice from the past, one can learn numerous things like how why it was so good or bad and what the developers did in the case of the latter. By gleaning information from the past, one can utilize what they learned for future development much like how history can teach us what to do and what not to do. On a more practical note, analyzing past design concepts gives me a far larger pool of topics that I can write analysis articles on. In this particular article, I will be discussing the (Cataclysm and onward) Master Marksman passive effect previously available to Hunters in WoW.

Back during the Cataclysm expansion, Hunters received a bit of a rework in the form of the new Focus resource to replace Mana. As part of the rework, Steady Shot became an (even more) integral part of the Hunter's priorities by making it the main source of Focus generation. At the time it was terrible design since it introduced a huge amount of counterplay to Hunters in PvP (when they already had a lot through deadzone and other mechanics) which could even interfere with their PvE performance. Other changes, such as the removal of deadzone and the ability to always cast Steady Shot while moving, helped to make Hunters a bit more playable as time went on, but one mechanic for the Marksmanship specialization in particular was generally left unchanged despite countless complaints (can easily find more through the usage of Google fu).

The Problems

Master Marksman as a passive effect was mechanically flawed for numerous reasons. I will be making a lot of comparisons to the Enhancement Shaman's Maelstrom Weapon in this particular analysis as it is the most similar effect.
The passive relied heavily on non-scaling RNG that is also fully reliant on the usage of an ability.
By itself this isn't necessarily bad. After all, the Maelstrom Weapon passive has been in existence on a proc-per-minute (PPM) system. However, when comparing the two talents against each other, it rapidly becomes apparent as to why Master Marksman is so inferior. Master Marksman relies solely on the casting of Steady Shot, meaning if a Steady Shot doesn't go off, there's no chance of Master Marksman stacking. Furthermore, a Hunter realistically would be using other abilities including the instant Aimed Shot that Master Marksman would grant, meaning the total amount of chances to proc Master Marksman dramatically increases.

Maelstrom Weapon, on the other hand, can activate off of all melee attacks (which scaled based on attack speed so that weapons of any speed have a similar chance to proc the buff), including activated abilities, meaning that it's not only part of their damage dealing rotation but passively continues to stack as long as the Shaman is attacking. In both cases, haste benefits how often the passive can proc, but given that Enhancement Shamans dual wield melee weapons and can activate the Windfury effect for more chances at a Maelstrom Weapon proc, it becomes clear that Maelstrom Weapon objectively scales better despite a somewhat fixed chance to proc.

The statistics support this as well, since dual wielding as an Enhancement Shaman allows for 25 PPM, or 5 fully stacked buffs (while performing their normal damage dealing rotation) compared to 18 PPM for Master Marksman if a Hunter were to continuously cast Steady Shot with no haste (30 Steady Shots cast in a minute multiplied by 0.6 for a 60% chance), which was reduced further in patch 5.0.4 to 15 PPM (but the amount of stacks required to fully stack was also reduced to 3). In a more realistic situation, the Hunter would probably cast about half as many Steady Shots to use other abilities such as Arcane Shot to dump Focus, meaning the Hunter gets 9 PPM (or 1.8 fully stacked buffs) or 7.5 PPM (or 2.5 fully stacked buffs) after patch 5.0.4.
Master Marksman stacks cannot be prematurely consumed.
While it is understandable as to why Master Marksman may not be able to be consumed early (players would almost certainly use the proc at a certain number of stacks instead of letting the passive fully stack since it's more efficient), it unfortunately leads to a possibility where, in a very bad case, the stacks, despite the buff lasting 30 seconds, can fall off with no chance of being able to consume them. Maelstrom Weapon, on the other hand, reduces the cast time and mana cost of several spells by 20% per stack, thus allowing the buff to be consumed at any time. Furthermore, there is a reason to get the buff to 5 stacks since an instant cast cannot be interrupted and doesn't disrupt or delay melee swings.

Overall, Master Marksman mechanically lacks flexibility and fails to account for the worst case scenario.
The power of the Master Marksman proc is weak considering the above two points.
While the previous two points in themselves show some major flaws in Master Marksman's design, it could have a compensating factor in terms of sheer power that counterbalances the low amount of procs per minute and the sheer inflexibility of the proc's usage. However, Aimed Shot didn't deal quite enough damage to compensate for the flawed design. Based on the history of the skill, Blizzard themselves even acknowledged that the proc didn't do enough damage. Even when accounting for the fact the ability did about 200% weapon damage during Cataclysm, Arcane Shot did about 100% weapon damage (and ignored armor), meaning Aimed Shot was a slightly juiced up Arcane Shot. While it probably deals more damage than an instant Lightning Bolt, Master Marksman's power is still rather disappointing (though Mists of Pandaria tries to alleviate the issue by greatly increasing Aimed Shot's weapon damage to 350% and may have succeeded if Marksmanship wasn't a weak specialization in general).

It is also worth mentioning that I don't particularly agree with the above argument but I made it more for the sake of trying to determine a redeeming factor of Master Marksman. I personally do not think flawed mechanics can be redeemed by tweaking damage values (in particular).
Aimed Shot was often only used if Master Marksman reached 5 (or 3) stacks because it was balanced around Master Marksman (which made it instant cast).
Considering the other two specialization signature abilities that a Hunter can receive are an actively used part of the Hunter's damage dealing repertoire, it's weird that Marksmanship gets Aimed Shot instead of the more frequently used Chimera Shot (especially since prior to Cataclysm, Aimed Shot was an instant cast ability that was part of most Hunter's damage dealing rotation). While Aimed Shot isn't the only specialization signature ability that generally relies on procs to use (even though Hot Streak scaled heavily with critical strike chance and Mists of Pandaria made the proc a lot easier to control), Aimed Shot has benefits associated with it that it generally cannot take advantage of.

For instance, Rapid Fire greatly increased (and still increases) ranged haste, but aside from later in Cataclysm, Aimed Shot was generally not strong enough to be superior to Arcane Shot as a focus dump choice. Careful Aim increases the critical strike chance of Aimed Shot dramatically when an enemy target is at certain thresholds, making Aimed Shot an attractive as an opener but since Master Marksman's proc rate is low and not really controllable, any further benefit from Careful Aim will mostly be attributed to Steady Shot (aside from a certain point in Cataclysm when Aimed Shot became a decent Focus dump to use in that situation).

Overall, I was rather disappointed that Aimed Shot ended up being so rarely used due to it being balanced around being instant cast due to a proc (and then in Mists of Pandaria Marksmanship was generally just weak).

What Blizzard Did

After two expansions of Master Marksman being a core aspect of the Marksmanship specialization, Blizzard removed the passive entirely along with Arcane Shot, making Aimed Shot the primary Focus dump for Marksmanship. In addition, they added other changes that generally make Aimed Shot very attractive to use, such as Rapid Fire activating Careful Aim's effects (which is an awesome synergy since Careful Aim affects abilities with cast times). However, I personally believe Blizzard went overboard by removing Arcane Shot since now Marksmanship ironically lacks instant cast abilities and the specialization is generally unenjoyable to play as a result (though the damage is decent). Thankfully Master Marksman is gone though and hopefully won't manifest itself again in a similar design state.

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