Totem Talk: The rise and fall of Lightning Shield for Enhancement
When I first played World of Warcraft, I barely cared about Lightning Shield. Now, I barely care about Lightning Shield. Those are the end points; the parts in the middle get interesting.
Lightning Shield does all right for itself these days; I hear it’s doing pretty well over on Elemental, for instance, and that’s pretty keen. I had always hoped those hep cats would get a Fire Shield or something, but that’s neither here nor there. We’re here to talk about Enhancement, where the ability started its life as just a thing you could use and has wound up back there again… but with some stops along the way that, I think, demonstrate an underlying weirdness that Enhancement still feels on a regular basis. So let’s go back to the Before Times, better known as…
The earliest incarnation of Lightning Shield was part of an elite group of skills that also included Thorns and Retribution Aura, which would deal a small amount of damage to anyone who struck the player in question. This group of skills were elite because they were all completely useless for reasons that should be entirely obvious — waiting for someone to hurt you in order to deal damage worked exactly once (Reckoning bombs!) and that wasn’t intended design. Not to mention that if your core strategy centers around the idea that your massive axe is no match for the slight scratch damage of hitting me, you may have overlooked an easier path forward.
At its core, Lightning Shield hasn’t changed much on its own since those days. The earliest incarnation cost mana and had limited charges, the current incarnation is free and has unlimited charges — there are charges on Elemental, but those are more a resource to build up and spend, and I ain’t talking about them anyway – but at its heart the ability has always been about hurting someone who hits you. So it was a buff you put on as Enhancement for soloing or PvP or the rare time something hit you, and if you forgot about it you didn’t really care too much. No one in your raid would yell at you for not having Lightning Shield on.
I realize that almost no one was actually bringing Enhancement to a raid at that point anyhow, but it’s the principle of the thing.
When Burning Crusade launched, Enhancement was finally viable to bring places. We could clean up real nice, get a slow spellpower weapon for our main hand despite the screaming protests of casters, something fast for the offhand… it was fun times. Lightning Shield was unchanged, but it also was changed, because there was a new sheriff in town named Water Shield.
Water Shield was — and is! — all about mana management. Back then, Enhancement wasn’t in the worst conceivable place when it came to mana, but even the launch version of the ability made it a bit more attractive than Lightning Shield. Hitting someone back for a small amount of damage was generally not nearly as important as getting more of that precious, precious mana. We weren’t heavily casting then, since it would be a while before Maelstrom Weapon showed up, but everything still ran on mana and Water Shield let us keep doing it.
When Water Shield got passive regeneration added, of course, that was it. There was no longer any reason to use Lightning Shield save the distant awareness that yeah, something isn’t quite right here. Obviously, no one at Blizzard had intended for Lightning Shield to be entirely useless, and I’m willing to bet that there were one or two corner cases wherein you wanted Lightning Shield around. But as it stood, that passive mana regeneration just did more for a Shaman, especially rocking Enhancement. Something would have to be done to make Lightning Shield attractive again.
Wrath of the Lich King
Something like changing the ability to something more active rather than passive.
Technically speaking, Wrath just removed the mana cost of Lightning Shield. Enhancement also picked up a new talent, Static Shock, and that by itself made Lightning Shield worthwhile; it gave you more orbs and a chance to consume one as a direct damage burst on your attacks. Suddenly, those little rotating lightning balls weren’t a defense against an attack that was never coming, they were an attack that you had launched very proactively against a target you hadn’t engaged yet. It was simple and elegant, it made those charges matter, it added a source of damage to Enhancement without actually creating any button bloat.
If it had a flaw — and it did — it was the same flaw that’s always sort of sunk through Enhancement, in that it was random. You could go long stretches without seeing any effect, then you could find yourself refreshing Lightning Shield repeatedly as your autoattacks fired off orb after orb. Combine that with so many other random spikes of happenstance, and it was something that needed to be addressed, yes. It was also a bit annoying to use your GCD just to refresh a buff that would attack on its own, although that was more of a function of the randomness than anything.
For all the stuff that this expansion mucked about with, Lightning Shield and Static Shock remained pretty firmly in place. The big change was that Static Shock would only work from specific attacks and that it no longer cost or increased your Lightning Shield charges. Functionally, this isn’t a big change, but it also did indicate a shift. Instead of Lightning Shield being something you burned through, Static Shock was just a passive damage buff that activated so long as you had another buff on you. That disconnect sort of jarred.
Still, from a functional standpoint, everything was working fine. Static Shock was functionally a flat damage boost on the most frequently used Shaman attacks, with a wee bit of randomness. Mists of Pandaria kept this more or less intact, doing nothing but removing the frankly unnecessary charges from Lightning Shield. You didn’t use Lighting Shield for the orbs, you used it because you got an additional little burst on some of your Stormstrikes and Lava Lashes.
Warlords of Draenor
The problem, of course, is that as you look at the consolidation it becomes clear that Static Shock had functionally become a buff that increased two attacks. So it’s gone; it’s easier to just back that damage into the core of the abilities in question. Less bookkeeping, less randomness. And here we are again, with Lightning Shield just thwapping people on the wrist who happen to brush against a Shaman wrong. From a purely mechanical standpoint, it makes perfect sense.
But I said back in the beginning that this kind of speaks to an underlying issue, and it really does. Every single change makes sense from a purely mechanical standpoint, but each one also was made in an iterative fashion that kind of missed the meaning and the impact of each change before that. Yes, not having to refresh your Lightning Shield because you ran out of charges was a good thing — but just making Static Shock no longer consume charges severed a link between your Lightning Shield and what was happening on the screen. It created a rift.
From a numbers standpoint, Enhancement is a fine place, and while the spec has some weaknesses I’ve discussed in the past, you could argue that it’s obviously pulling enough competitive damage that it still has a place. That’s true. But there is that underlying discontent with the spec, and I think Lightning Shield might not sit at the heart of why but certainly provides a simple and clean illustration of why. We’ve come full circle from having a cool use for the ability to just turning it on and forgetting about it.
I’m not suggesting that we roll back to Static Shock — as with totems, as with weapon imbues, as with so many bits of the Shaman toolkit over the years, we’ve moved beyond that point. I’d very much like to see it have some use again, but even that isn’t the point. The point, rather, is that our spec is being altered steadily away from the toolbox many of us started playing, and while all of the changes have some mechanical merit, a lot of them don’t seem in line with what was fun to begin with.
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