There seems to be a heated debate going around the priest community (debates, yay), the question being - are discipline priests too good? Or rather, have our shields become too good?
In the one corner are the priests that feel that Blizzard are going back on their "word" that healing wouldn't be about spamming only one spell in Cata, as it was back in Wrath. By making the shield so powerful it doesn't really matter how you want to heal, you have to spam shields sooner or later because that is where the discipline power lies. In the other corner we have the priests who feel like people are overreacting. That the buff to the shields was much needed, and that there is no way that we can start spamming shields anyway. I'll try to take you through this jungle and see where we end up. Are the shields really too good or aren't they?
When people say that shields are becoming too good, they generally mean that it's being used too much in raids. What they don't want are priests that only use this one spell, because it outperforms all the other spells we have. The way they know this is by checking how discipline priests heal through parsing tools like worldoflogs. It is true that shields make up a big portion of discipline healing right now, and even have made holy priests thinking about turning bubbly, but is that automatically a bad thing?
First of all, percentages alone won't tell us the whole truth. Having a high percentage in healing done with a spell only means that it healed for alot during a fight, not that it was used alot. See the difference? Some people are afraid we'll return to the one button mashing priests we basically were back in Wrath, and trust me that is definitely not something I miss. But having shields up as the spell that heals the most doesn't automatically mean it is the spell I use the most. Just that when I use it, it heals for alot. I remember that Hymn of Hope was some 15% of my total healing done back in Wrath, if I used it during a regular raid fight. That doesn't mean I spent 15% of my healing time casting it though, I had only cast it once. Unfortunately the numbers on worldoflogs only show how many times the shield was hit, not how many times it was cast, which bloats the figures somewhat (in most raids we can assume most shields to be completely absorbed by one hit, but this depends of course on how the shields are used).
Also, we have to take fight designs into consideration. Because of how the shields work, there will be some fights where shielding is optimal (Omnotron, Maloriak) and other fights where shielding will be alot less effective (Chimaeron). There is also a difference between 10 mans and 25 mans. We have to remember that the shield doesn't actually heal anything, it only absorbs damage. We still need other healers to do the actual healing or the shields aren't very useful. This matters, because it means that spamming shields is only good in raid composition where you know that the healing part will be taken care of by someone else. This is more often true in 25 mans than in 10 mans. In my raids, I often have to use gcds on aoe healing as much as I have time to shield, and I think this is true for many discipline priests at the moment.
There will always be a heal that people use the most. If you look at the other healing classes, they too have spells that are up sniffing at 30% healing done. Druids usually have over 25% healing done with Rejuv and/or Wild Growth, same goes with Priests and CoH/PoH, shamans and Healing Rain, paladins and Holy Radiance/Beacon. Like I said, this doesn't mean that they spam these spells, only that these spells are the most effective. Nonetheless, discipline priests often get close to 50% healing done with shields, something that is not easily done with other types of heals as it is now (without becoming completely ineffective or wasteful). It should be noted that top holy priests often have Prayer of Healing up at these numbers however, and up to 60% total healing (maybe my next post should be about whether PoH is too good).
Some healers are grumpy because the shield mechanic actually removes the need for healing, making it difficult for other healers to compete. There is no way to not overheal a shielded target, since the absorb will always be taken into account first when damage is dealt. Personally I don't see this as much of an issue at all, because it all matters on how much damage is dealt. As an example, remember how LK worked. Shielding was pretty op during that fight because it completely soaked the otherwise rather troublesome Infest. Shields would basically remove the need to heal anyone after an Infest. That doesn't mean that you could bring one discipline priest to the fight and have it done with. There was plenty of damage going around that the discipline priest didn't have time to deal with, and this is still true in Cataclysm. Even if we could spam our shields around like crazy, as long as we take more damage than a shield can soak before there is time to reapply a new one (~3000 dps/person in 10 man and ~1200 dps/person in 25 man, if you shield every person in turn) there will be a need for other healers.
One argument some priests use is that it doesn't matter how good the shield is, the vast majority of priests won't be able to spam it around anyway because they will oom. Even if there are some priests out there that are able to keep the raid shielded throughout a fight, these are a minority and should not be part of the calculation. Although I usually agree that extremes are not much worth to look at unless you're part of such an extreme yourself, in this case it does point to something important. These priests are an example of what could come. If there are priests out there who can go through an entire fight just spamming shields (and still do a good healing job, I mean anyone can go crazy heal without it meaning much), it shows that this healing style is possible. Gear differences are smaller than ever before, meaning many of us could soon be in the position where we find that we have gear enough to deal with a healing situation solely by spamming shields. And even worse - it could be the best way to deal with a healing situation. This is what many priest fear right now. That spamming shields is the best way to deal with something, and were only limited by lack of gear, something that won't limit us for very long.
What solutions are there?
As a holy priest I used to basically spam PoH (and spamming PoH is still alot what priest healing is about tbh, see above). Do I like it? Not that much, but it is an extremely effective spell and there is always some aoe damage to heal up. PoH was nerfed for this reason, and some of the aoe love was given to CoH instead to encourage holy priests to use more than just one spell. This was a great solution imo (although perhaps not strong enough), and I wouldn't mind Blizzard doing something similar with shields. Nerf the output of shields somewhat and have other spells boost the effectiviness. Grace already procs from heals, but they could make Renewed Hope proc from heals as well, instead of Weakened Soul.
Another idea that was thrown around on forums (see first link) was to make mana cost of the shield scale with gear. Right now all spells cost mana based on base mana which means they become more and more mana effective the better our gear gets. There is a point to this in the game, of making us feel better and better and make getting new gear worthwhile, and I don't think it is something easily changed. I don't see this as a good solution since it would actually make our shields unaffected by gear. That reminds me of the flat damage casters used to have on spells back in Vanilla, and there was a reason they decided to remove that alltogether. A version of this could be to make it also absorb damage based on max mana (this was Loves idea), make it both scale positively and negatively with gear (aka even out). This would probably turn the shield into more of a cooldown, kind of like a small Lay on Hands, and perhaps changes would have to be made to our other heals to account for the "loss" of shielding.
A third solution would be to lower the duration of the shield (also taken from first link). It is currently on the target for 30 seconds, but by lowering that duration to 20, 15 or 10 seconds the shield would need alot more planning to be used effectively. It would definitely quell some of the spamming, except under times of heavy aoe raid damage where you know that the spell will be soaked during its uptime.
Is there really a problem?
Currently, and speaking of personal experience, I don't think there is a problem. I don't use shields on more than 5 targets at the same time at most, simply because the hps is too low to use it on more during heavy aoe and that combined with me ooming too fast if I do that just doesn't make a viable healing style. But I do recognize the issue - if the shield is too good, we will start using it more and more the better our gear gets. I look at three things here - do I feel like shields are too big a part of my healing? No. Do I think it is to most other disc priests at the moment? No (based on checking logs of random disc priest healing). Do I think this can become a problem later on? Yes. This isn't a problem exclusive to discipline priests though. Just as druids spammed rejuv, paladins spammed Flash of Light, shamans spammed Chain Heal and holy priests spammed renew back in wrath, this is what happens eventually when players get better and better gear. Just as we reduce cc to a minimum and start bruteforcing heroics like we did in Wrath. We get better and our environment doesn't, it is inevitable that we will start spamming our way through content. Like I said, this isn't an issue only aimed at discipline priests, this is an issue with game design overall and there definitely isn't an easy solution. Even if shields are too good now and discipline priests are spamming them, it would only be the tip of the iceberg. Other classes are soon to follow (and already are to some extent) and therefore I think we should rather find a solution to this overall issue than cry too much about the shields being too good.