Arcane Sanctum: The fantasy of being a Mage
Although we’re still in the middle of Warlords of Draenor’s final raid tier, it’s an exciting time as we begin looking forward to Legion and changes it might bring. Specifically, when Jonathan LeCraft said at DragonCon that classes and specs are being carefully reconsidered with regards to the “fantasy” of each spec, the community took notice. It’s sparked some interesting discussion and reflection here at Blizzard Watch, and we Mages should consider it as well.
It’s not hard to understand why someone would play a Mage. The wizard archetype is firmly established in popular media of all kinds – from Merlin to Raistlin and even Harry Potter, it’s a really satisfying fantasy to imagine turning your enemies into harmless sheep and wielding powerful arcane forces. Players who choose a Mage as their avatar are tapping into that. Depictions of Mages often borrow heavily from Dungeons and Dragons as well; wizards in that context are usually scholarly, intelligent and dedicated in order to master the magic they wield.
Of course, World of Warcraft has its own unique take on the Mage and it varies by spec. We’re going to consider each spec individually from the perspective of its current, established fantasy and history. Mages in Azeroth should embody the consummate spellcaster — versatile and with an unrivaled toolbox of spells at our disposal.
You may consider Arcane the quintessential Mage spec. Every time a Mage casts a spell that isn’t specifically elemental, such as Polymorph or Arcane Brilliance, they’re tapping into the power of “the arcane” to do it. Even Arcane’s offensive spells are just that — you’re hitting your enemies in the face with pure magic.
Thinking back to the original talent trees, it feels as if Arcane had the most to lose in terms of spec flavor when the trees were completely revamped. Many Arcane talents thematically dealt with making a Mage more focused, resistant to damage and interruption, and just overall better at casting spells than other Mages. It lent itself well as a supplementary tree for shenanigans such as Presence of Mind followed by Pyroblast. Arcane Mages in WoW are just better at magic than everyone else. That was the established reality, but I’m not sure if the current one follows through on that.
As far as actual gameplay goes, Arcane has been plagued for years by the “single button spec” perception. This is so pervasive that even though Arcane’s gameplay has changed significantly, I still hear jokes about it. Also, the consolidation of talent trees into talent tiers took away some of the things that Arcane had that were uniquely its own. Focus Magic, Arcane Concentration (Clearcasting), Amplify Magic, and Dampen Magic are all things that are either gone, or were made irrelevant, and unfortunately some of Arcane’s unique flavor went with them.
This isn’t to say that I’m opposed to the current talent trees. In many ways, they streamlined gameplay and allowed for more adaptability, but there’s also a bit less room to express the personality that comes with being an Arcane Mage — the pride in being truly a magical adept, with the fastest and most potent spells around.
The fantasy of Fire Mages has always been pretty clearly defined. They are the Mages who just want to watch the world burn (and don’t even particularly mind if they go up in flames with it). Although the phrase “glass cannon” is appropriate for most Mages, it’s especially true in the case of a Fire Mage.
Pyromancy lends itself to a strong identity, and this has held true for most iterations of the Fire talent tree. While talents like Playing With Fire went away, there’s definitely personality to exchanging more damage output for more damage taken. Every Fire Mage would make that trade, which apart from the volatile nature of Fire itself as an element is a pretty good illustration of the inherent risky, daredevil attitude of a Fire Mage. Even Fire’s spell graphics are arguably among the flashiest — hurling huge boulders of fire, a dragon breathing fire, and setting the ground on fire. We’re not exactly aiming for subtlety, here.
The core gameplay and identity of Fire has remained largely whole throughout expansions, and always with a strong emphasis on critical strike and procs. Fire currently incorporates a strong emphasis on AOE, which is sometimes frustrating when many raid fights don’t feature a chance for this ability to shine.
The other side of the raw elemental powers are the Mages who like to lock things down — solidly, in blocks of ice. Frost Mages for a long time were relegated almost exclusively to a PVP role, largely because their toolset of devastating control abilities is always good for taking on other players. But thankfully in the past few expansions a vocal number of Frost Mages who wanted to use their preferred spec in PVE have prevailed. Frost became a viable and competitive raiding spec in addition to a PVP juggernaut and the result benefits all Mages. More choice is never a bad thing in this arena!
As far as Frost Mage fantasy goes, Frost Mages are usually portrayed as calculating and cool. They can kill you, but they’ll do it all in one burst or at a glacial pace of their choosing. They also, on rare occasions, will use their powers for good and make ice cream for all the denizens of Azeroth.
There are some mysteries about Frost Mages that I’d love to see expanded on. What is the nature of the Water Elemental? How intelligent is it? Will we ever get the ability to name them, the way hunters name their pets? (This was possible for a very short time because of a bug, but it’s never been officially added or explored). Are they just mindless servants? Most Frost Mages I’ve known feel an affectionate exasperation for their Water Elemental. Because it’s the only pet spec available to us as a class, it fills a unique role that also serves to give Frost some of its individuality. When you play a Frost Mage, you’re playing as a small team. This isn’t true of any of the other specs.
The Mage experience
Overall, the biggest detriment to the feeling of playing a Mage as any spec over the last few expansions has been the simplification of talents and gameplay. Looking back at some of the older talents for various specs really cemented this feeling for me. The fantasy of playing a Mage is having a wide variety of spells. If you look at any in-game and lore Mages, they are almost never exclusively tied to a “spec” but more often are able to adeptly cast spells from any school of magic. Khadgar is a great example of this — that dam destroying number that he casts actually uses all three elements of magic for a single whopper of a spell. Of course he’s supposed to be more powerful than we are, but still.
It used to be that you could be a Fire Mage with a hint of Arcane, or you could be a Fire Mage with some Frost. For a brief time in Wrath of the Lich King after the introduction of Frostfire Bolt, some Mages experimented with an almost 50/50 Elementalist build that combined both Frost and Fire. I don’t actually expect that Legion can address this feeling — simplifying and compartmentalizing the specs is an overarching gameplay decision, but it feels as if the fantasy of being an all-powerful wizard has suffered somewhat as a result.
Button bloat is a problem, but I always really enjoyed the huge and varied everything-and-the-kitchen sink spellbook that Mages had. You might not use that spell on cooldown or very often, but when you needed to, it was there. I enjoyed the quirkier aspects of being a Mage — finding out what food I was going to conjure each expansion (I miss you, Mana Cakes), conjuring Mana Gems, even stocking reagents. Some spells have survived the culling, such as Spellsteal, Slow Fall, and Ice Barrier, but Amplify Magic enjoyed a brief rebirth before being cut again, and many of the Polymorph variant glyphs and Crittermorph are broken.
The loss of some of these spells and abilities may seem minor in the grand scheme of things but it’s these details that make Mages unique to this game. Although some are quality of life things that it’s better to be without, how much streamlining can occur before it becomes detrimental to the feeling of being a Mage? Conjuring pastries isn’t something you associate with a D&D wizard, but in World of Warcraft it’s part of our personality, along with turning things into sheep and teleporting when we meant to make a portal. I am really hoping that the class overhauls and artifact quests combine to allow us to see some more specific Mage gameplay and help recapture some of the identity that makes us the best spellcasters around.
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