Shadow Word: Shadow Priest class fantasy in Legion
Last month, I talked about the history of Shadow Priest gameplay and how it’s evolved over the course of World of Warcraft’s lifespan. While there are some minutiae left undiscussed, from a gameplay perspective what’s made Shadow what it is leaves little room for questioning. The same cannot be said for Shadow from a lore perspective, and with Legion promising a “back to fantasy” approach to class design, it’s important to know what exactly Shadow is and what it might become in the future.
The Cult of Forgotten Shadow
Shadow magic goes by many names: dark magic, the Void, the Shadow — they all represent the sort of magic that was originally discovered by Bishop Natalie Seline after the First War. This magic was a controversial subject among the Kirin Tor, and Seline’s studies were locked away until much later, when the Forsaken would call Lordaeron their home.
From that time on, Forsaken Priests began to delve into Seline’s research and study her notes on the existence of this dark magic. While some remained dedicated to the Light, others embraced this dark magic and used it more and more frequently. Eventually, the Cult of the Forgotten Shadow formed among the Forsaken Priests. Over the years, the members of the Cult have expanded to races besides just Forsaken, though it’s unknown if these non-Forsaken Priests had separate introductions to Shadow magic, or if the Cult of Forgotten Shadow simply taught them what was learned from Seline’s books. However, the principle behind their studies has remained the same — a focus on the balance between dark and light. Without the Light, the Shadow cannot exist; without the Shadow, there is nothing to balance the Light.
Shadow Priests as a balance with the Light
From a gameplay perspective, this balance between Light and Shadow may have been best represented in the game from classic through Cataclysm, when Vampiric Embrace was a key component of Shadow’s playstyle. Doing damage always meant you were also healing those around you. When you healed through Vampiric Embrace, you never actually cast a Light spell, but you still theoretically utilized the Light to counterbalance the shadow magic being used.
Moreover, Shadow’s toolkit included a much larger array of healing spells in the early days of the game. In this sense, the balance between Light and Shadow was a much more literal one. If you wanted to heal, you had to drop out of Shadowform, stop using any shadow spells, and briefly utilize the Light until it was safe to return to dealing damage. In these cases, the balance was shown in terms of “healing versus damage,” and the Priest had to make a willful choice about how to best balance the two.
Of course, recent changes to the game have almost entirely eliminated this aspect of the Shadow fantasy. Sure, we have a few healing spells and our Vampiric Embrace still exists as a raid cooldown, but despite Blizzard’s many overhauls, one thing has always seemed pretty clear throughout the years: Shadow as a “hybrid DPS” is not something they intend to bring back. Which means the Shadow of Legion is likely to emerge in a slightly different form.
Those who embrace the Void
As I mentioned earlier, shadow magic isn’t always referred to as the same thing. Numerous enemies in WoW — and Celestalon — refer to their dark energies as coming from the Void. This is perhaps best currently seen when fighting the Shadowmoon clan on Draenor. The Shadowmoon Orcs call upon the Void to cast dark magic spells, though they do so unchecked. The result is an unbalanced utilization of what players know as shadow magic and a dangerous impact on not just the Shadowmoon Orcs, but the land around them as well.
More dangerous, however, are the Old Gods who are also thought to utilize a branch of magic that stems from the Void. While not explicitly mentioned, multiple whispers from the Puzzle Box of Yogg-Saron mention darkness, shadows, and the Void. If the Shadowmoon Orcs and their corruption represent unchecked shadow magic over a short period of time, it’s safe to say that Yogg-Saron, the Old Gods, and their minions represent a vision of what becomes of those who let themselves become fully engulfed in The Void. The Old Gods give no acknowledgment to the Light that Bishop Seline felt so strongly was a necessary counterbalance to the darkness of the world.
Which might be inconsequential if not for the little fact that Shadow is seemingly getting something called “Insanity” as its new resource/mechanic in Legion.
Shadow Priests as a balance with Sanity
Blizzard has been subtly tying Shadow to an Old God theme for at least two expansions now. When Mists of Pandaria launched, Shadow saw Void Tendrils introduced as a talent. And while the current model is only vaguely reminiscent of the tentacles one frequently encounters when fighting Old Gods, the original beta iterations were even more so. At first, the talent summoned a smaller version of the tentacles seen in the C’thun fight. Later, this was changed to the kind of tentacles that are seen when Touch of the Void is used (i.e., smaller versions of the Constrictor Tentacles seen in the Yogg-Saron fight). Coupled with the fact that our Shadowfiend/Mindbender can be glyphed to be a Sha (another Old God tie-in), it seems as though the idea of Shadow as encroaching on Old God territory has at least crossed Blizzard’s mind.
Which leads me back to Insanity, the (tentatively) upcoming resource for Shadow. Curiously enough, we’ve actually already seen Sanity as a pseudo-resource in game. Where? None other than the Yogg-Saron fight back in Ulduar. In that fight, Sanity appeared on the player and would slowly be drained away as exposure to the Old God (and his Void energies) grew. With Freya active, you could stand in a Sanity Well to restore some Sanity at the cost of time you could be damaging the boss — a balancing act, of sorts. Were you to lose all your Sanity, though, you would become Insane and your mind would give in to the powers of the Void. Being Insane, in addition to mind controlling you and making your former allies appear as Faceless Ones, increased your damage and health for a full minute. And then you died horribly.
This could easily be tweaked and made into a resource in Legion. Maybe instead of Sanity counting down, Insanity will count up and become more dangerous to use as time goes on. Think about it — if Shadow is going to be more focused on the Void, it only makes sense that utilizing that Void energy would come at a cost. But as Celestalon wrote, we are still Priests. We know what we’re dealing with is dangerous. So instead of outright killing us, perhaps Shadow’s playstyle will take a lesson from the older versions of Shadow Word: Death and hurt players more and more as they approach Insanity.
In that case, Shadow would still need a way to balance the Insanity of what we’re doing. The Cult of Forgotten Shadow was founded on the principle of balancing dark magics with the Light, so maybe to keep from damaging ourselves we’ll need to utilize the Light until it’s once again safe to embrace darkness. I can’t exactly see Blizzard wanting Shadow to rotate between dealing damage and outright healing, but it’s possible that we’d have a way to heal just ourselves through means reminiscent of that original hybrid-style healing. Think Mind Spike but with slightly reduced damage and a self-healing component. This sort of gameplay would need some checks in place to make sure it didn’t become too dangerous, but it would turn health into a more interesting resource in the same way mana has become for Arcane Mages.
Putting it all together
There are a lot of directions Shadow could head in Legion beyond just the two discussed here. What’s important to me as a player is that we see the lore not only expanded, but also built around the existing lore. The Old God tie-ins I’ve presented here make more sense under a microscope than as a broad idea presented to all Shadow Priests. If Old Gods, Void energy, and psionics are the direction Blizzard wants to take Shadow, that’s perfectly fine with me. But it needs to be explained more in-game and feel like a natural evolution of what has made Shadow, “Shadow.”
From a gameplay perspective, I want damage-over-time spells to be our primary focus again. Clarity of Power was an interesting experiment but never really felt “Shadow” to me. It’s promising (if a bit read-into) that Celestalon mentioned the Void and our biggest damage-over-time talent is Void Entropy. My hope is that “returning to our class fantasy” will allow Shadow to return to a DOT class without sacrificing the single-target damage offered by Clarity of Power. Next month, BlizzCon will have happened and we’ll likely have a lot more to discuss.
Until then, always remember: sometimes, the best love is the kind that drives you Insane!
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