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WoWMar 23, 2015 3:00 pm CT

Plaguebearer: Frost Runes and resource conundrums, oh my!

If you’ve been paying attention to community news over the past week, you’ve likely borne witness to the hullabaloo that accompanied the hotfix to Death Rune generation for Death Knights. Although that hotfix has thankfully been confirmed to have been reverted with the next server reset, this incident marks an important event that I think can and should cause players to reflect on the implications it holds for our resource system.

Investigation 101: What happened and why?

The best place to begin, of course, is with the hotfix itself.  On the 11th of March, 2015, the following was posted:

Originally Posted by Rygarius (Official Post)
Fixed a situation where some runes were incorrectly eligible to be turned into Death Runes.

At the time, the context behind this seemed reasonable: Prior to this hotfix, since Patch 6.1 had gone Live, Blood DKs found themselves able to both generate and maintain six Death Runes consistently. This allowed extra Death Strikes per rune cycle, assuming the newly converted DeathBlood runes were spent solely on Death Strike. Of course, this playstyle was neither realistically feasible nor optimal on a majority of encounters, so let’s simplify the implications by saying that it granted Blood more flexibility in its resource usage than desired.

Here’s where it gets strange though: This functionality was the result of a fix to Unholy Death Knights in Patch 6.1. More importantly, the hotfix had a fairly crippling effect on Unholy AoE, rather than Blood DK play (where, in all honesty, it was barely felt).

“Er… What?”, you ask. Bear with me.

Ancient History: Frost Runes and Unholy AoE

In order to understand the logic behind the hotfix, we need journey back several expansions to the dawn of the “new” Unholy rotation: The Cataclysm Beta.

Veterans of Wrath of the Lich King will recall that Scourge Strike originally cost both a Frost and an Unholy rune, matching the costs of Death Strike and Obliterate for Blood and Frost respectively. Indeed, there was even a time during Wrath where Obliterate replaced Scourge Strike for Unholy DKs due to the latter being too weak. But I digress!

Fast-forward to the Cataclysm beta, and one of the biggest changes made at the time was the reduction of Scourge Strike’s cost from Frost/Unholy to a single Unholy Rune. Blizzard’s stated reason at the time was that they felt that Scourge Strike felt too much like an “Obliterate clone”, and that they wanted to give it a different feel.

That was all well and good, except that Unholy’s entire rotation was based around Scourge Strike costing F/U rune pairs. Having it suddenly cost only Unholy Runes left us with an awkward situation: Orphan Frost Runes. No matter how you sliced it, AoE or single-target (at the time, our single Blood Rune using ability was Blood Strike), we’d consistently be left with Frost Runes that we could only use to spam Icy Touch. Considering that Icy Touch was a weak, single-target ability that served no purpose outside of applying Frost Fever (the dispel glyph was only added in Mists), this was quite unpopular among players at the time.Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 3.25.57 pm

Eventually, Blizzard caved and put forward a solution for single-target rotations: Festering Strike. This ability cost Blood/Frost rune combos, transformed them into Death Runes and fit in nicely with Scourge Strike’s new cost. It clashed with disease application outside of Outbreak usage until Patch 5.2, but that’s a separate issue without much bearing on the present. Unfortunately, the same courtesy of an F/B combo attack wasn’t extended to AoE: While Unholy Death Knights could preemptively convert Frost Runes to Death in anticipation of needing to spam Blood Boil for AoE, these DeathFrost Runes would go back to being Frost once used.

This was allowed to go live, and resulted in an extremely un-fun and frustrating AoE rotation for all of Cataclysm: Once an Unholy DK had used four Blood Boils, they either had to content themselves with only using two Blood Boils and two weak Icy Touches for the next few rune cycles, or forgo AoE entirely in favour of using double Festering Strikes for another four Death Rune cycle. This AoE rotation became the subject of numerous complaints, and Blizzard finally heeded our cries in the Mists of Pandaria beta by adding Blood Boil to Reaping. In essence, this meant that once a Frost Rune had been converted to DeathFrost, using Blood Boil with it would return it as DeathFrost once again.

Better yet, Patch 5.2 saw Icy Touch placed on Reaping which gave us a way to convert individual Frost Runes to DeathFrost without the need to pair them with a Blood Rune via Festering Strike. Although it was (and is) still problematic that Frost Runes have no direct AoE use, these changes did ease up AoE requirements and the ability to transition in and out of AoE/single-target priorities considerably.

Forward, march!

Thus far, we’ve limited our discussion to being strictly about Unholy AoE. How then did a hotfix aimed at Blood DKs affect us?

The key to understanding this lies in understanding the infamous Reaping bug that has affected Unholy DKs in one form or another all the way from Wrath till Patch 6.1. This bug can simply be summarised as this: Casting Blood Boil on a Blood Rune would cause a DeathFrost to return as Frost even if the latter were used on Blood Boil! This was clearly unintended behaviour for Reaping, something that developers acknowledged in Patch 5.4 but did not have the time to fix until 6.1.

While Reaping did receive its fix in 6.1, it seems that the fix also affected Blood Rites (i.e. the Blood DK Death Rune passive)- which is what lead to the original issue that prompted the hotfix. This in turn meant that the hotfix that was applied to correct what was seen as an issue for Blood, also ended up affecting Unholy by undoing the original Patch 5.0 change to Reaping, that incorporated Blood Boil.
In short: We went back to the Cataclysm Unholy AoE rotation overnight, with no warning.

Unsurprisingly there was a great deal of community uproar and confusion about this, yours truly included! Celestalon initially confirmed that the change was intended, but later stated that they were reconsidering what had happened due to the severity of its effect on us. For reference’s sake, Skullflower also analysed the implications that the hotfix brought for Unholy using present day mechanics.

Thankfully, Blizzard heeded our feedback:

Originally Posted by Rygarius (Official Post)
[Requires a realm restart] Reverted a hotfix from March 11 that fixed a situation where Blood Tap (Talent) and Death Strike would interact incorrectly and allowed Death Runes to become permanent.

Analysis: What lies ahead?

Crisis over and we can all go home happy now, right? Not quite.

Lore’s followup tweets on the matter reveal that the entire hotfix has been reverted. This means that the whole reason behind the hotfix (i.e. Blood being able to maintain six Death Runes) will return, which is most assuredly not an ideal situation in Blizzard’s eyes. My analysis of this situation can be summarised in four points:

  • First, it is clear that whatever situation causes Reaping and Blood Rites to be linked is complex enough to not be solvable on the fly.
  • Second, it is likely that the developers themselves did not fully understand how crippling this effect would be on Unholy AoE. Recall that initial tweets from Celestalon acknowledged the hotfix as being intentional — this changed when they fully understood what it did to us.
  • Third, by reversing the hotfix Blizzard has taken a calculated risk. While the pros most assuredly outweigh the cons in this case, I do not imagine that it was a cut and dry decision on their part — especially given the obvious implications that this has for Blood DKs in situations such as Challenge Modes.
  • Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, this incident and the plethora of hotfixes and changes that I’ve mentioned earlier in this article, point to something I’ve said for some time:  The rune system has become convoluted, to the point where even mild changes can have severe ramifications in areas not even targeted. This is not a good situation for any resource system to be in.

What I’m trying to allude to here is that I believe it is highly likely that the current state of the rune system will see substantial revision in 7.0. I cannot claim to know how, but the fact that Blizzard already feels that it is “overly complex” lends credence to this theory. On the flip side, this complexity is part of what makes the Death Knight class so appealing to many, and provides a majority of the play that defines the class — thus even the hint of change is enough to be a source of concern.

Ultimately, there’s little more we can do on this end but speculate. The one thing that I am sure of, however, is that something must change. In the past, I’ve been a heavy advocate of this change being aimed at the Level 60 Rune-regeneration talents, which I see as being both flawed and unintuitive. Looking to the future, I hope that whatever incarnation of the rune system that emerges in 7.0 takes player feedback (both positive and negative) into account.

Fittingly, I plan for my next column to weigh in on the nature of the Level 60 talents in our present situation and why I believe that, as talents, they are ultimately inimical to the nature of our resource system.

Until next time, suffer well, brethren!

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