On Combat Pets

A series of conversations with a colleague over Twitter led to a lot of thoughts on combat pets and pet classes.

Namely, it started with the concept that Frost Mages should have a talent to opt out of having the Water Elemental as a pet, which Technical Game Designer Chadd “@Celestalon” Nervig shot down. For my piece, I agree with Nervig, but wanted to provide more rationale as to why.

1) The reason why Warlocks and Hunters get a talent that lets them go petless is because otherwise, they have no options. Without GoSac and Lone Wolf, if you don’t want to manage a pet, you don’t get to play the class, full stop. So adding in abilities that let you go without deepens the gameplay for each class. And even then, it’s important to note that Lone Wolf only has that function for non-Beastmaster hunters (BM gets something else), and GoSac is being tweaked to behave differently for Demonology warlocks. Conversely, for Frost mages, if you don’t want to manage a pet, Fire and Arcane are just a respec away.

2) Opting out of Water Elemental would over-simplify Frost’s gameplay. When you look at the optimal rotation that Icy Veins suggests for a Frost mage, you might notice that it’s not a long list. Proper usage of Freeze to squeeze out more Fingers of Frost procs and consequently more Ice Lance casts is probably one of the more complicated elements of their casting priority. If you drop Freeze usage, the rotation is excessively simple, and only complicated by whether or not you have FoF procs to spend.

* Now, that’s also an argument for Frost getting something more complicated for a rotation, but then you’re talking about changing up class mechanics and that’s much bigger than the initial request of “please can I play without having Squirt hovering next to me?”

* It’s also important to point out that when you look at Marksmanship and Survival’s rotations, nothing changes for them if you drop the pet. They’re just losing out on passive damage and the pet’s utility. Which brings us to:

3) Hunters and Warlocks rely on pets for unique utility. Frost Mages do not. This is notable in the effects of the pet-sacking talents; namely, in addition to a passive increase in damage potential, Lone Wolf lets the Hunter provide a raid buff reflecting what the pet would have provided, and warlocks get to kidnap a situational ability from whichever demon they sacked. Conversely, Squirt doesn’t really have anything unique to her; she gets a watered-down Frostbolt and a targetable Frost Nova. The thing with Freeze is that because of the synergy it has with Fingers of Frost, mages treat it as a mage ability in order to maximize their procs. And aside from that, Frost still has a method of generating FoF procs even without using Freeze.

* One could make the argument that Squirt ought to have her repertoire increased to be in line with other pets in order to make the Frost Mage pet-play more similar to other pet classes. To that end, if you added something to the W-ele that enhanced the pet play and THEN offered a talent that let Frost mages forgo it for petless play, it would be more in line with Lone Wolf and GoSac. But again, that’s getting into a slippery slope of adding/altering abilities that has repercussions in more than just PVE fights.

The bottom line here is that asking to bench Water Elemental is a taller order than just asking for the Lone Wolf treatment. It’s an apples/oranges comparison, because Frost’s pet play is markedly different from hunter/warlock pet play. And it can’t be overstated that Frost mages can opt out of the pet by not being Frost mages, while hunters and warlocks can’t opt out of pets without dropping the class entirely.

Meanwhile, in Shaman Country…

Another conversation aimed at Nervig’s feed caught me eye, where a player asked about giving shamans an option to make a permanent pet out their Fire/Earth elementals (which Celestalon nuked from orbit). This presents the opposite end of the spectrum on pet play that I think helps to accentuate why Frost can’t lose Squirt.

1) Pet classes/specs are defined by the presence of a permanent pet. The wording on Lone Wolf and GoSac is pretty clear. Lone Wolf increases hunter damage by 30%. GoSac increases single-target spells by anywhere from 15-35% depending on spell and spec. This means out of all the damage hunters and warlocks do, ~30% of it comes from the pet. With Enhancement/Elemental shaman, temporary cooldown pets like Burnie, Rocko, and the spirit puppies account for a noticeable percentage of damage, but that damage is confined to those cooldown windows instead of being passive damage being dealt throughout the fight. So if you’re saying “look, I’d sacrifice the cooldown if it meant I could have the pet out all the time” then what you’re actually saying is “look, I’d willingly give up 30% of my overall DPS in combat in order to outsource it to my pet.”

* I appreciate that some players are going to say “I am perfectly okay with that.”

2) Not all pets are created equal. Feral Spirits are two separate wolves/raptors with separate health bars, with a passive that heals the Enhancement shaman. The Fire Elemental has an AoE attack in addition to dealing damage to attackers. The Earth Elemental has an AoE taunt. Taking the Primal Elementalist talent grants even more abilities to Burnie and Rocko. And this is without doing a comparison to other cooldown pets like the Infernal/Doomguard, or Stampede. So I think it’s fair to say that if you wanted to give the permanent pet treatment to many of these cooldown pets, you’d be looking at changing them dramatically in order to bring them in line with the hunter/warlock pets. And again, maybe that’s an acceptable loss for people who really want to be an Enhancement shaman who always has his puppies out, but it’s possible that plenty of people will miss the damage CD during burn phases or will miss utility that was rightfully stripped off in the process of getting the permanence.

3) Matching the kit is always a concern. Strictly speaking, when you talk about making the totem pets into permanent pets, you’re talking about stripping the “totem” aspects out of them. Given how many abilities come from totems for shaman, and how intrinsic totem-centered abilities are to the class (especially given the directive in MoP to make totems into situational cooldown abilities rather than critical abilities that shaman always needed to drop before they could begin play) it feels strange to specifically take two of the most powerful totem abilities and drop the totems.

From a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense for a shaman to constantly have a fire/earth elemental following them around, even outside of combat. Shaman petition the elemental spirits to grant their powers, and in times of great need they’ll ask an elemental to intervene directly and aid them in combat. But a shaman who’s got Burnie and/or Rocko looming beside him all the time has effectively enslaved the elemental to his will, which is really counter to the shaman credo. (This was a big part of the reason that stomping on all of Garrosh’ Dark Shaman was important.)

There’s also another big unanswered question: do all three shaman specs get the ability to have one of the pets out at once? Fire and Earth are both a part of the Elemental kit, so there’s no question there. Enhancement is a little trickier because the presence of the elementals doesn’t really affect the shaman in an overt way. And with Restoration… well, the earlier statement about sacrificing damage to outsource it to the pet doesn’t work, since Resto is about healing, not DPS, and neither of the elementals have healing abilities (though Primal Elementalist grants some healing augmentation). Conjuring a new elemental for Resto to use is a plausible solution, but then you’re talking about a third elemental, and do Elemental/Enhancement get access to it as well?

Essentially, you’re talking about a LOT of design work going into shaman to grant what’s ultimately a nerf to the shaman’s personal throughput, all for the sake of an aesthetic that doesn’t actually serve the lore of the class. Much like the Water elemental, it’s not as simple as offering the inverse of Lone Wolf or GoSac, because there are a lot of implications in warping something that’s not a pet spec into a pet spec.

* * *

That’s my long-form explanation for why Lone Wolf can’t really be used as a justification for changing up the pet dynamics of other classes. I think there’s a greater discussion to be had about improving Squirt and giving Frost an option between pet play and petless play, and I think there’s a discussion to be had about Enhancement having pet play centered around permanent Feral Spirits, but I also think that those changes aren’t something we’d see before 7.0. Future post ideas, for sure.