Spiritual Guidance: Swapping between Discipline and Holy
Priests are unique in that we’re the only class in WoW that has two healing specs. Any other class that wants to heal will have to swap classes in order to try a different style, but we can swap specs like a pure DPS class. However, even then we’re still unique from DPS classes because healing can’t be simmed in the way that DPS can.
There’s not really going to be a scenario where one of our healing specs is objectively “better” and mathematically more viable than the other. We can’t quantify numerically the amount of possible healing, because healing is a zero-sum game, and there’s only so much that can be done. Instead of “this does the highest amount of healing” we want to go for “these are the best tools for the job.”
Some fights or scenarios will be better suited to a spec’s strengths. The one thing many people forget when considering different specs, even with DPS sims, is that sims and world-firsts rely on perfect performance. One spec may mathematically edge out the other — but that requires perfect play from the individual. World-first players are going to eke out every possible edge and stack what they can to get that advantage.
This creates perceived imbalances, where the more casual playerbase assumes that there is only one correct option. We fall prey to the appeal to authority — because high-end raiders use a certain spec, it’s obviously the only spec to use. Looking at the first Mythic kill rosters, we can see Discipline as a constant presence throughout the top guilds in the world-first race. One of the problems the WoW devs have mentioned before is that when there’s a perceived imbalance, players will flock to the spec, making the other spec look worse than it is. The truth is that everything is viable, it just depends on the level of play you’re at and how far you want to go in min/maxing.
What happens when your raid leader wants you to switch?
Since we have two specs that accomplish the same role, it can usually be assumed that we are able to perform in either spec. Depending how competitive your guild is, it can also be expected. Sometimes your raid leader may ask you to swap for a fight or the entire raid. If you don’t already swap, or you prefer playing one spec over the other, this can be jarring. It’s important to find out why the swap is needed.
What fault or inadequacy are they trying to rectify? Do they think the other spec brings more to the table? This can be true, depending on the style of fight or the cooldowns needed to counter it. Sometimes you need damage prevention, and sometimes you just need a huge healing cooldown. Holy is great for throughput heals and can dish out a lot of healing with its two large cooldowns, as well as consistently over a fight. Discipline’s strengths lay in bursting periodically with timed damage over a shorter cooldown.
Does the perceived fault lie with the spec’s weaknesses — or with your own play? If you’re struggling, it could just be an issue of playstyle conflict. It’s hard to play Holy “wrong,” since it’s very good at being reactive. Discipline, which relies on being proactive, is far more punishing if you don’t get it right. I’ve played with several Discipline Priests in the past who chose Discipline because it was the “good” spec, but their reactive playstyle was more suited to Holy.
Flavor-of-the-month specs are popular because of their perceived strength, but they will be mediocre if played by inexperienced players. This is especially true of Discipline in 8.0, which is dependent on predicting damage and knowing when to set up burst spells. While the FOTM spec could look great on paper and in logs of experienced players, it could be lackluster and perform worse in actuality. In the example above, my fellow group members would have performed better as Holy, despite it being the undervalued spec at the time.
Swapping between Discipline and Holy
I will always recommend playing both specs if you’re serious about progression. They have different strengths in raids and can generally counter each other’s weaknesses. In order to truly excel at both, you have to spend enough time doing content in order to build two gear sets. Discipline’s stat priority is Haste above Crit and Mastery, while Holy’s is Mastery over Crit over Haste. While the stat priority is ideal, Intellect is far above any secondary stats, so higher item level will generally be an upgrade. If you have multiple pieces of the same item level, then you can play around with stat allocation.
The main concerns with swapping between the two specs are Azerite gear and rings. You’ll either need two Azerite pieces for each slot — if you’re lucky enough to get multiple equal level pieces — or you’ll need to reforge the traits if you choose one of the spec-specific traits. Rings are where stat priority really comes into play and is your best bet for getting your desired stats. Trinkets will generally be the same for both specs. Atonement doesn’t proc off DPS trinkets or Azerite procs, so Discipline will want to use healing trinkets this expansion.
What should you play?
Both specs are great and excel on different fights. If you’re primarily PUG-ing raids, I would recommend Holy for two reasons. The first is because Discipline is starting to become a little FOTM-y, and a lot more people will be playing it. While there’s little downside, of taking more than one Discipline Priest at the moment, there’s still the holdover habit from Wrath of one per raid. I say “at the moment” because the datamined information on the PTR indicates that Weakened Soul will be making a return, which will limit Discipline stacking.
The other is that Holy is more forgiving and can compensate for raid mistakes. Group Finder raids tend to be the Wild West, and who knows what people may do. When you’re healing with a regular group, you get a feel for how everyone will react and you know what to expect from fight mechanics. In a PUG, it’s usually a race to heal all of the stupid. If you’re counting on the regular fight damage and someone makes a giant mistake before you can get Atonements out, your healing will suffer. We all know how PUGS can be, especially with ignoring class nuance and only looking at who is on top of the raid meters. Played properly, Discipline will shine as well as Holy. But if you don’t feel confident in your ability to properly set up Discipline’s burst and predict damage, Holy is easier to react with.
In a guild group, you tend to have more choice because your guild will generally understand that group progression is the goal. If you’re the only Priest in your raid group, then you can use your best judgement and swap back and forth. If you have another Priest, I would advise having one of each spec for variety. Both are strong and will complement each other. I’ve always disliked having more than one of the same class (or spec, in Priests’ case) in a healing team, simply because there are only 4-5 healers, and having varied cooldowns is helpful. As far as which spec to choose for each encounter, it can be dependent on the fight and your other healers. Fights with constant raid damage like Vectis are great for Holy. Quick, timed bursts of damage like Taloc or Zul are great for Discipline to set up Atonement and burst heal.
What do you want to play?
In a game like World of Warcraft, the important part is having fun. What do you personally like to play? Playing a spec you dislike, simply because it’s perceived to be better, will just result in a diminished game for you.
Holy is the quintessential healer. It has a lot of raw throughput and is great for consistent damage throughout the fights. You have strong mini-cooldowns with Holy Word: Serenity and Holy Word: Sanctify for both single-target and AOE healing. You have two strong raid cooldowns in the form of Divine Hymn and Holy Word: Salvation, with Hymn of Hope as utility to help your other healers. While it’s helpful for any healer to know when damage is coming, Holy has a lot more leeway in reacting to things. It’s also easier to play for people new to healing or used to healing on other classes.
Discipline can be tricky and requires a lot of attention to damage patterns and knowledge of when to set up Atonement. It’s better for timed damage spikes with quick raid-wide burst heals on a shorter cooldown. When you do it correctly, it’s very powerful. It doesn’t really have the “big” healing cooldowns that Holy and the other healers have, but the burst healing from a full raid of Atonements as heavy damage goes out can be just as satisfying. Discipline’s baseline cooldowns like Power Word: Barrier and Pain Suppression revolve around damage reduction and are very powerful, even if they don’t show up on meters.
Generally, if you play a spec well, and you enjoy playing it, it will be viable for just about any content you want to do. Don’t worry too much about what spec is “best” — just worry about performing your desired spec to the best of its ability.
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