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Editorial > WoWFeb 17, 2021 7:00 pm CT

Players inevitably choose the most powerful Covenants, and balance changes won’t solve the problem

Even with all the hours players spent in the Shadowlands alpha and beta tests, you can’t entirely see the impact of some game systems until the entire player base has a chance to explore it. This is certainly the case with Covenants, which provide a significant boost to player power this expansion. Throughout testing, players were concerned that balancing the Covenants would be difficult (or impossible), leading players feeling forced to pick the “best” Covenant instead of the one they wanted for lore or aesthetics.

But Blizzard didn’t want to to “pull the ripcord” and decouple Covenants from player power. They felt the Conduits, Soulbinds, and Covenant abilities were too intertwined. The developers were working under the premise that their balancing efforts towards the end of beta would iron out any problems with Covenant powers, and further feedback from the players would identify the worst of the outliers.

Nearly four months after Shadowlands launched, Covenants still aren’t balanced. And recent attempts to balance Covenant abilities may not solve the core problem: the fact that players feel forced to choose specific Covenants to successfully play the game.

Devs dreamed of a system where all Covenants were equal

In an interview with Exorsus team member Alveona, Senior Game Designer Paul Kubit said “there are going to be cases where a particular Covenant choice might do better on a particular fight or situation in PVP.” Unfortunately, it seems Covenants were not nearly that well balanced. In the aftermath of the World First race, Wowhead sat down with the officers of BDGG, which finished the tier US 2nd and World 9th. The officers didn’t mince their words when describing the state of Covenants:

“Covenants are very poorly balanced.  If someone was the ‘wrong’ Covenant, it is not even a question of player skill at that point, they just would not have the tools necessary to compete at the level we would need them to play at. ” – Dbzy, freshly minted tank this tier and data wizard

“Covenants only become important if someone chooses the incorrect covenant from a throughput perspective. There was a correct answer on every class for what Covenant you must be.” – Impact, Ranged officer and prolific guide writer

Okay, fine. Those are World First raiders. They push the envelope of content. They class stack and spec stack on a fight per fight basis to get an edge that will let them get through the fight. If Covenant balance was just something World First raiders worried about, it wouldn’t be any more impactful than those things.

But this is hardly a World First raider problem. All kinds of players are choosing their Covenants for player power.

Players inevitably chose the most powerful Covenants

If players chose Covenants for aesthetics or lore or for any other reason other than player power, we would expect to see a healthy distribution of Covenants among members of a given class and spec — but that’s simply not what we see. Eleven of the twelve classes have a spec with one Covenant chosen nearly 70% time.

  • Unholy Death Knight to Necrolord at 72.15%
  • Vengeance Demon Hunter to Night Fae at 77.68%
  • Balance Druid to Night Fae at 86%
  • Marksman Hunter to Night Fae at 74%
  • Fire Mage to Night Fae at 76.81%
  • Windwalker Monk to Kyrian at 71.8%
  • Retribution Paladin to Kyrian at 69%
  • Discipline Priest to Venthyr at 70.01%
  • Enhancement Shaman to Venthyr at 71.64%
  • Fury Warrior to Venthyr at 68.36%
  • Affliction Warlock to Night Fae at 74.11%

All statistics are taken from Wowranks.io on 2/16/2021

Certain Covenants fit well thematically with certain classes. No one should be shocked that 86% of Balance Druids are Night Fae or that 69% of Retribution Paladins are Kyrian. But classes don’t always choose the Covenant that’s the best fit thematically, and there’s not enough variety between choices to suggest it’s simply a matter of personal preference, either. Instead many classes lean heavily towards the Covenant that’s the most powerful for their class and spec.

Consider Priests. Like Paladins, Priests — at least of the Light-influenced variety — fit well thematically with the Kyrian, but Kyrian is not the most popular Covenant for any Priest spec. Holy sees the best representation with 29% of Holy Priests being Kyrian, but Necrolord remains the most popular Covenant for Holy at 39%. Just 20% of Discipline Priests are Kyrian, easily dwarfed by 70% of Discipline Priests that went Venthyr. (Less surprisingly, Venthyr again wins out among Shadow Priests at 43%.) Clearly, thematic and aesthetic fit is not enough for Priests to choose Kyrian — instead, Holy is drawn towards Unholy Nova for an additional healing cooldown and Discipline wants the burst damage of Mindgames.

In another mismatch, Warlocks seem like a perfect thematic fit with Venthyr, but almost three quarters of Affliction players are Night Fae. That’s about the last Covenant that fits Affliction thematically, but Night Fae’s Soul Rot gives Warlocks a strong DPS cooldown while Venthyr’s Impending Catastrophe offers far less impressive damage output.

Unlike some other classes, there isn’t a strong thematic fit for a Monk, but we see that 72% of Windwalker Monks are Kyrian. The cooldown reduction and massive Mastery buff from Weapons of Order makes players feel forced to choose Kyrian or they’re deliberately nerfing themselves. It also helps that most tanks prefer Kyrian, so if you’re a Monk that wants to fill both roles, Kyrian is a great choice. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re drawn to the Covenant’s sense of duty and selflessness — because Kyrians provide the biggest power boost.

It’s not about thematic fit, lore, or aesthetics: players choose their Covenant based on power.

Imbalanced Covenants can put hybrids in a tough spot

For Monks, at least, it works out well that both their tank and DPS specs have powerful Kyrian abilities — but for other hybrids, Covenant choice is more difficult. Warriors, for example, find themselves pulled in opposite directions. The best Covenant for DPS Warriors is Venthyr and indeed, we see 68% of Fury Warriors and 60% of Arms Warriors are Venthyr. But like Brewmaster Monks, Protection Warriors love the ability to clear bleeds granted by pledging to the Kyrian — and so we see 57% of Protection Warriors are in fact, Kyrian.

This puts a Warrior player who wants to use multiple specs in a tough spot: if they want to raid as DPS (since raid tank spots are notoriously competitive) but push M+ as a much-needed tank, different Covenants give them the biggest advantage.

Even casual players choose the most powerful Covenant for their class

Choosing the most power Covenant isn’t just for World First raiders and other hardcore players: even the most casual of players are drawn to the most powerful Covenants. These are players who get to end game and stop: they may not do group content, and shouldn’t be influenced in any way by what high-end players think is best. Yet data compiled by Preach Gaming shows the Covenant choices of players who didn’t do M+ or raid matched those of players that did.

It’s absolutely true that you can do +14s and +15s with any spec or Covenant you want. You can complete all content with any class as any Covenant. And it still holds true, that while you can, you and your group will have an easier time if you play the most powerful specs and Covenant.

Everyone is picking Covenants based on what’s considered most powerful, whether it’s likely to matter to their gameplay or not.

Spec Balance

Buffing weaker Covenant abilities may not solve the problem

Are there anomalies? Sure. Our own Cory Taylor is a Venthyr Guardian Druid (only 7% of Guardian Druids are Venthyr). I’m the player that mained a Protection Paladin in Burning Crusade when they were designed to be the worst tank. I get an odd thrill from making the off-meta choice.

But the data points out that we’re in the niche minority as far as how players chose their Covenant. Blizzard has locked away pets, transmog, and story behind a choice many players feel forced into.

While Blizzard is taking another pass at balancing the Covenants in patch 9.0.5, it’s unlikely to fix the core problem: that one Covenant or another will always come out on top, and players will always feel forced to choose it.

We’ve already seen this happen. Near the end of beta, most Rogues were going to choose Necrolord, but Blizzard made a last minute balance update to rebalance the Covenants for Rogues and now there are virtually no Necrolord Rogues (<10%). All a rebalance will do at this point is cause some players to grumble as they feel forced to switch their Covenants and regrind their Renown.

It’s time for the developers to consider decoupling player power from the Covenants. It’s time to finally “pull the ripcord.” As the Maw Waker, we aided each Covenant. Why couldn’t we “pledge” to one but choose other Covenant abilities or Soulbinds?

The development team worries that the system will collapse without a certain combination of class abilities, Soulbinds, and Conduits. But decoupling Covenant choice from player power doesn’t seem likely to be catastrophic. Class abilities and Soulbinds could remain intact, just open to all players. As for Conduits, except for those that modify the signature ability, all Conduits drop for all members of a class regardless of their Covenant choice — it could simply continue to only drop ability-specific Conduits for people who have that ability. The systems is already far more robust than the developers seem to think.

It’s time to give players a true choice in Shadowlands.

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