Monday, June 24, 2013

MoP Disc Priest Healing Guide - Part 3 - Spell Usage (Heals & Absorbs)

Welcome to the third part in my guide to how to disc priest heal, full with personal anecdotes and small history lessons, just the way we love it, right? This time I thought I'd talk a bit more on skills/spells (I use it pretty interchangeable in this context), how and why to use them, love them and treat them like they deserve, good and bad. I realized this post was growing out of proportion (yes, that is why it has taken such time to write) and decided to cut it up into smaller pieces in turn, bear with me if you will.

I've often argued that priests probably is the healing class that has to juggle the most skills around when healing. Whether this is, or ever was true, is up for debate and it definitely depends on what you mean by "use while healing". Some healing classes have use of, for instance, some attacking skills while healing occasionally (setting aside the obvious Atonement usage of attacking skills) so question is what should be counted towards a normal rotation. Paladins for instance might have fewer heals but instead have a lot of cooldowns to keep track off. Overall the score board is fairly even across the healers and in either case there are definitely a lot to keep track off. Some skills are used continously throughout a fight, some are used only once or twice in a fight and some are used once or twice in a raid (Divine Intervention is a good example, although it doesn't exist anylonger). Being able to acknowledge which skill to use when is the essence of healing and what sets a skillful healer apart from a newer one. Preferably this will eventually sit in your backbone, where you'll react with instinct based on experience on a given situation rather than thought, since thinking is sometimes too slow.


I can still clearly remember the feeling of being a new healer, and this feeling is also refreshed each time I try to heal on a class I am not as familiar with as the priest. Most of the time things go easy enough, but every now and then you'll end up in a situation where you'll require some quick reactions and ever quicker thinking. When this happens, remember that one of the key rules to healing is;
"It's always better to do something rather than nothing". Even if you panic and use the "wrong" heals, wrong being a less appropriate heal than another one, it is still always better than not healing at all. There are very few instances where this is not true, the only time I can think of are the rare occasions where healing actually does damage instead (Anub'arak in Trial of the Crusader comes to mind). If it turns out you made the wrong choice and you eventually have to pay for it by ooming (which is mostly how you pay for a bad usage of skills), at least you might have saved your raid some time to get more practice on the fight (including yourself), or your instance group some time to salvage the situation. Otherwise, you'll learn more quickly that you chose the wrong spell when you see people quickly dying around you. I make it sound worse than it, since in fact this risk is nothing exclusive to healers. Every class has their task to make sure the boss goes down - the triforce of tanking, spanking (dps), and healing.

If you're really interested in becoming pro at healing, try to see every failed situation (ie wipe) as a possibility to try out a new, better way to tackle the fight. Think about your choices and try and figure out if you could've used a skill differently somewhere. Was Flash Heal the right choice or should I have gone with Greater Heals? Should I have waited another ten seconds with the Power Infusion? Maybe if I use a Shield first and then cast a heal? Even after 6 years of raid healing, I still love to analyze my own skill usage and I often find things I could do slightly differently to up my game.

I can honestly say this has helped me a lot with keeping my patience when I've had wipe nights that go on for hours. Even when the dying has nothing to do with what I'm doing, I know there is always some little thing I can tweak or do even better to ease things up for the people around me. Ideally, if you use your skills good enough, it allows some leeway for the rest of the group to do those occasional mistakes that are almost inevitable. This is what I really love about group efforts in mmorpgs - seeing how the dynamic of group and individual skill eventually is rewarded in achieving your goal (hopefully, at least!).

Knowing what each skills do is obviously the first step towards knowing how to best use them, after that comes loads of practice, but don't worry - healing is fairly simple to learn, but challenging to fully master. This is why it never really gets boring (or at least I don't think so).

So let's get started with the skills, sorted by alphabetical order and type;

In this part - Heals/Absorbs

Categorizing heals and other skills used while healing isn't such an easy task. A skill like Penance for instance can be used for both healing and dpsing, and a skill like Power Word Shield isn't even a heal in the technical meaning. Penance also has a cooldown and PW:Shield causes a debuff which in some situations work as a cooldown, so where do they fit? I have chosen to categorize them in the area they normally work under. Although Penance can be used to dps, that is rarely how it is used when raid healing, and the cooldown is too short to make anyone really think of it as a proper cooldown skill (imo same goes for Cascade, Divine star and Halo although their cooldowns are even longer). The absorbing feature to discipline healing is a big part of how we heal, so I thought it be simplest if we consider them heals in a way. In the end it doesn't really matter which category a skill falls under, the important thing is that you understand what it does and doesn't do so that you can get the most out of it.

Also from (they be handy)

- Binding Heal
I have somewhat of an ambivalent feeling toward Binding Heal. Although it's actually quite a handy heal and I use it quite frequently, it just not one of my favorite heals. It doesn't feel like it fits in with the other "heals", Heal, Greater Heal and Flash Heal, but it does actually fill its very own little niche and I know I love having it when I really need it (which sounds obvious). I often have the feeling that Binding Heal isn't strong enough or too expensive and that the work can be better done by combining other heals instead - sometimes this is true. But one should not underestimate the power that lies in being able to heal yourself while healing everyone else - in fact one of the first things I really struggled to learn was to remember to heal myself (as I have mentioned before). The problem with Binding Heal is that it takes a while to learn how to use it, when does it apply and when could I indeed be better off using other heals. It's easy to either completely forget about this underestimated gem or overuse it in the idea that it is extremely mana and time effective.

In reality, Binding Heal costs just less than Greater Heal or Flash Heal and heals a bit less as well. Since the heal is split between you and your target, in a way, it's important to think about that it won't save the day but rather give you another moment to think when things are getting hectic.

The trick is trying to wedge in BH between the times you need strong single target healing and strong aoe healing. BH is often a good choice for mild to moderate aoe healing or when you somehow end up being the one taking a bit more damage. So the way I usually end up using Binding Heal is when I'm the one who needs some healing but there are also targets around me that could use a little fix-me-upper. By throwing around a couple of BH's I've healed up myself and made sure no one is too low at the moment. Another great time to use BH is when you're actually being focused for damage, since it's a good way to keep yourself alive while also still helping out on the overall healing, as long as the damage on you isn't too high for BH to handle obviously. BH more than many of your skills might require some experience before you feel like you fully know where it fits into your healing arsenal, but it should definitely not be ignored just because it seems out of place. When used correctly it is one of the heals that makes me grateful to be a priest.

- Cascade (talent)
As mentioned in my previous post, Cascade is the 6th tier talent I've ended up liking and therefore using the most. Not only is Cascade a good heal when used at the right time, it's also very pretty (don't underestimate the importance of this!). Jokes aside, the visuals of Cascade will often lure you unto using it more often than what is actually called for, since it not very useful when the raid gets grouped up - this is when you should use Prayer of Healing instead. Cascade should be viewed as exactly this, a supplement to Prayer of Healing, especially for a spread out raid that PoH might have trouble reaching or for heavy aoe where you want Cascade to jump around doing its magic while you also cast PoH. What to think of isn't the damage incoming as much as the positioning of the raid. If there is any form of aoe and the raid is fairly spread out, you're probably well off using Cascade.

- Divine Star (talent)
I'll be honest straight away and say that other than for lulz when it first came out, I have never really used Divine Star. It just doesn't appeal to me, although the requirements for using it succesfully aren't necessarily stricter than for the other two (Halo and Cascade) - it's all about the placement of the raid. Like I mentioned above when talking about Cascade, and also mentioned in my Talent section of this guide, I think that tier should complement the usage of Prayer of Healing. The reach of PoH is one of its biggest weaknesses, compared to Cascade and Halo, a weakness it would only share with Divine Star (the other weakness being the group targeting, but that can be handy at times as well). This means Divine Star and PoH are meant to be used in roughly the same situations, and I prefer to diversify my healing arsenal to cover my bases. Also, Divine Star is further "replaced" by any holy paladin in your group who has Light of Dawn, a skill that works very similarly to Divine Star. Of course, if you know you're getting into a fight that is all about the stacking, ie making skills like Cascade and Halo pretty much useless, Divine Star is the way to go. Personally that is how I think Divine Star should be viewed, as an option to Cascade when Cascade simply isn't usable. It probably won't happen often.

- Flash Heal 
FH has gone from being our bread and butter heal in Wrath to rarely being used at all in early Cataclysm. Back in Wrath, FH was the spell you spammed - it was quick, fairly cheap and healed for a decent amount. In Cataclysm they decided to change all the "Heals" (Greater Heal, Heal and Flash Heal) to actually work the way their names intended, meaning Flash Heal instead became a quick and expensive save-the-moment heal rather than the staple heal it had been. In fact, FH was so expensive in early Cata I considered it barely usable with lowbie gear, which was a dramatic change from it had been. Instead we had to work with the re-instated Heal (more about that on Heal), and the difference could barely have been bigger.

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I remember going from loving FH to hating it in mere days, and the feeling of disappointment over the new function of FH is a blow that I simply have not really been able to get over. In hindsight I realize something had to be done, FH had taken over completely by the end of Wrath and GH barely saw the light of day (Heal was thrown into the basement long ago). But the feeling of FH suddenly being so difficult to use in early Cata made me scorn it, and eventually almost forgetting it all together. As my gear eventually got better and FH actually became a viable spell to use in the right situations, I really had to struggle to get it back into my rotation. I had locked it out somehow, working in other skills to replace it, and still today FH is one of the few skills I don't consider myself fully profficient at - thankfully I love a challenge.

So how are we supposed to use FH today? The easy way to think of it is - whenever you need a GH but don't have the time to cast one. The only thing Flash Heal has over the other Heals is its speed, and when speed is what you need, FH is what you will want to use. With good knowledge of the fight and some planning, FH isn't used that often - mostly to save up a doozy someone in the raid might have made. Since Fh is so mana-inefficient, it is important to know (intuitively preferrably) that another spell doesn't work as well, unless someone is on the brink of death and about to take another hit (in which case you might want to Shield them first anyway), I've often found that a Greater Heal might do the trick, unless your haste is really, really bad. Like I mentioned, I ended up replacing FH for other skills in the situations I would normally use FH - often a GH and/or a Shield will work out as good or better. After some time you will most likely get a feel for it since it depends on things like your casting speed, assignments and a dozen other things that are personal to your raid environment. So again - use FH whenever you want a GH but just don't have the time for one.

- Greater Heal
Back in the day, GH used to be the spell that replaced Heal at around level 40, rendering Heal virtually useless for the rest of the game. For some reason, Blizzard thought of GH as a rank upgrade to Heal rather than its own skill, which was something that always confused me. It seems they've decided to think otherwise since Cataclysm, where Heal became a heal in its own right meaning we had to find a somewhat new area for GH to fit into. Fortunately, the step wasn't big - GH is still pretty much "the bigger Heal" although nowadays not necessarily the better choice as it used to be.

At the beginning of Cataclysm, Blizzard wanted every healer to have a couple of base heals in their arsenal - the fast but expensive heal, the slow and cheap little heal and the slow and cheap big heal. Mana consumption wise, Heal is among the cheapest skills but as soon as your gear starts getting better you will most likely still substitute Heal for Greater Heal (and also especially since everyones hp pools get bigger and Heal just overall seems like a waste of time). I realize there is equally much said about Heal as Greater Heal here, but they do really go hand in hand in much. The way you use Heal in early game is most likely how you end up using Greater Heal in later game.

Greater Heal is a very good base heal, but it does require knowledge of timing to be able to be used properly, especially in more pressing situations like progress raiding. It is comparatively slow and the way I end up mostly using it is either to top people off when things are a bit more relaxed or to get that bomb heal on someone after first securing them with for instance a PW:Shield. The biggest mistake you can do with Greater Heal is using it when you don't really have the time for it, something that is surprisingly easy to do. Like mentioned, this is often when a FH comes in handy instead.

- Halo (talent)
As with the other tier 6 talents, I've said most I had to say about Halo already in the talent section of this guide.

This is unfortunately not what Halo looks like in-game.

- Heal
I've already mentioned Heal quite a lot in conjunction with Flash Heal and Greater Heal, so a bit will be repeated here. Until Cataclysm, Heal was pretty much a useless spell past level 40 ish, when you got Greater Heal that completely replaced it. They were basically the exact same spell back then, only GH was bigger, leaving no reason to use Heal. Back when spellranks were still around, rank 1 of GH was still better than the highest rank of Heal, as I mentioned it seemed like GH was pretty much designed to actually replace Heal, which might explain its rather uninventive name.

But that was then and Heal has been allowed in from the cold since. Come Cataclysm, Blizzard probably realized the silliness in letting us priests have an entire skill in our spell book that we never, ever used. In early Cata, Heal was pretty much our "carpet-heal", ie meant to be spammable and giving us a tool to top people up without having to use up too much mana, a role that FH had previously held. This was especially interesting to us disc priests since Renew wasn't as useful to us as to Holy priests, and because our other cushion spells had become a lot more expensive (FH and PW:Shield).

The usefulness of Heal depends a lot on your gear however, as I came to realize. When Blizzard first implemented the changes I was thrilled as to the idea around their new function, although a lot less thrilled about how they practically turned out to work, which was shit. With really bad gear, which you normally have before you start raiding (comparatively), Heal turned out to be too weak and too slow to do what Blizzard wanted it to do - with better gear however you soon had the mana and eventually mana regen (when mana pools became same sized) to use Greater Heals instead, leaving Heal a very small niche to fill. At first you're basically forced to use it because your gear probably won't allow you to use too many GH, FH or Shields, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's very good.

The way I ended up using Heal was to literally spam it as soon as time allowed me to do so, saving mana for the more hectic fights. This means especially during easier encounters and inbetween fights. Whenever someone takes too much damage for Heal to handle, and that happens quickly, you'll have to resort to more expensive spells. Fortunately, in the best of worlds you'll mostly end up using Heal in dungeons where you'll be allowed drinks inbetween fights (who am I kidding though, that never happens). When I started raiding, my mana regen and mana pool had become good enough for me to be able to keep using Heal all over the place until I had something more important to do, in that sense it made me feel a lot like a Holy Light spamming paladin. But eventually Heal was yet again replaced by Greater Heal, and that has been especially true in MoP to me, where I've basically stopped using it alltogether for most raid encounters.


- Penance
Penance is one of, if not the most, iconic spells of the discipline priest (rivaled only by the Shield). Penance has always been one of our strongest heals with both good hpm (heal per mana) and hps (heal per second), limited by a cooldown. It's one of hell of a restriction though, but on the other hand it makes Penance pretty easy to use - every cooldown. Unless you're tackling aoe damage, or obviously when no one is damaged enough, there is rarely any reason not to throw off a Penance. Penance has long been used to quickly stack up Grace on a target, mostly the tank, which is very useful if you ever happen to be tank healing.

Penance is so handy it's easy to rely too heavily on it, forgetting that it is actually a really quick hot and not a "proper" heal. This does matter, because when your tank is taking really big blows (or anyone else for that matter), a well timed GH might be more needed than a Penance, if the Penance can't get your targets health up quickly enough. It's easy to think that a 1,5 sec really strong hot should get the job done, but if you only knew the amount of times people have died while I've had a Penance going on them that very moment. What you need to remember is that for all its strengths, Penance is not instant, and sometimes it needs to be cast a bit more ahead of time than you'd think.

EDIT: Reader Shanthi pointed out a notable change to Penance that is possibly the most useful way to use Penance in current content (~patch 5.3), since Atonement healing overall has become a much more used tool by discipline priests in this expansion.

"Penance is actually quite useful in raids cast as an offensive spell. It used to be clearly the best way to use it, but Blizzard nerfed it's atonement power a bit (90% healing power as Atonement) but it's still worthwhile. It adds a stack of Evangelism and ends up as three smart heals, going to the people who need it most. Which means it is actually useful to cast on cooldown even during AoE damage, as it's almost like a PoM that jumps three times instantly."

This is thanks to two important changes made to Atonement healing in this expansion;
Patch 5.0.4 (2012-08-28): Now also includes damage from Penance.
Patch 5.1.0 (2012-11-27): Healing range increased to 40 yards, up from 15.

Especially the last change, increasing the range, made all the difference to Atonement healing as before this change Atonement was basically only for (unreliable) tank healing and therefore only used for very specific fights (like Halfus in BoT back in Cataclysm). With these changes however, Penance works just like Shanthi describes, giving us even more use out of this already great skill.

- Prayer of Mending
PoM is definitely one of my favorite healing spells overall. I think the whole "smart healing" function has allowed me to anthropomorph it, imagining it might actually have its own personality. Maybe this also says something about how Forever Alone I am if I try to befriend my own spells. But I bet most of us have done it... right? Anyway, I just love the feeling of seeing my PoM jump around doing its job while I do mine. But there are reasons to love it even if you don't give your spells names like I do.

PoM is very mana efficient, and has historically been worth using even if you only expect it to jump once (especially with the glyph that increases healing on the first jump). In most environments you can expect PoM to jump at least twice or so, and there is rarely any reason not to keep this up off cooldown.

- PW: Shield
Discipline priest signature spell, the Shield has had a bumpy ride throughout our healing history. Back in Vanilla, the weakness (and confusion among Blizzard devs what absorbtion healing was really all about) of Shields and absorbtions in general  made discipline priests basically impossible to play. Ever since then the Shield has gone from being too powerful to being too weak, and still Blizzard seems to have a hard time balancing this skill. The whole idea of absorbing damage instead of healing it after the fact is already putting discipline priest at an advantage, which is why the Shield has come with a couple of disadvantages over the years. We have Weakened Soul, a talent to lower the cd on Weakened Soul, a cooldown on the Shield, a talent to remove the cooldown on Shield and more, talents that increase our healing on targets with Shields and so on. Blizzards trouble has probably been to make sure the Shield is a good tool for the discipline priest to use while not making it too powerful for the holy priest to use.

Because of constant changes to the balance of the Shield, it's gone from being spammed all over the place (like the heroic Lich King fight) to being used only every 12 seconds for the Rapture proc. Overall however, the Shield has served us well, and I've always been one of the people to promote its use. I still do, to a big part because if you're doing progress raiding, the Shield is one of the best skills you will have in your spellbook. It is easy to overuse, and it can burn through your mana like no business at all. Personally I find that your goal should be to be able to have a mana pool that can sustain your usage of Shield in a regular raid fight, including any mana returns you might have. 

This doesn't mean that I'll tell you to use it without any thought. But a Shield can pretty much be up on the tank (or other main damage taker) as soon as the Weakened Soul debuff is gone. Whenever you know someone is going to take damage, I don't see any reason not to use a Shield on that target. Earlier, before we had Barrier, I would've told you to cushion as many people in the raid with a Shield before a big aoe. Blizzard wanted to change this behavior and mana nerfed the Shield enough to make that a punishing act. Then they gave us an option in Barrier, which obviously is what you should go for when aoe damage is concerned. But whenever point damage is what you're dealing with, a Shield is a good way to start.

Keep in mind however that for all its awesomeness, the Shield doesn't heal any damage. This might seem obvious but is actually really important to remember, because it makes the Shield useless unless you know that your target is going to take damage within the next 15 seconds (which used to be 30 *sob*).

Also from - I would never play a nelf priest.

- Renew
Renew is in a sense the opposite of Shield. I don't mean that in a mechanical way, but more in how you should view it as part of your arsenal-way. To a discipline priest, Renew is weak and most of the time not worth your gcd. That doesn't mean Renew is completely useless to us. As long as you have low level gear you might have trouble keeping up Shields and Greater Heals, keeping a couple of Renews on your party is a very good substitute. Renew is also, not counting PoM, our only instant heal. One of the biggest strengths of the Shield is that we can cast it on the run, allowing the discipline priest some mobility when healing. As soon as you end up in a situation where people don't take continuous damage but still need to be healed up however, the Shield won't help you anymore. If you're at the same time also on the move, Renew is pretty much all we have to go to. When does this happen? Whenever the encounter requires the raid to move continously from some sort of damage for instance - it can be difficult to tell who is going to take damage (ie fuck up) and who is not, making Renew an overall better choice for healing than the Shield. The air phase or rings on Atramedes is a good example, but many boss fights have these kind of encounters.

Closing Word For This First Part of Part 3
It would be typical me to have forgotten a skill in my eagerness to write everything that came to mind about them all - feel free to correct me if you notice anything like that or anything else you don't agree with. Keep in mind that most of my suggestions are based on an overall style of healing rather than one that is suited for whatever might be the endgame progress raid dungeon when you're reading this. This allows, at least to some extent, for the ever coming changes to classes that occur in a game like WoW to still fit this guide somewhat (I hope). The aim is for it to fit MoP as a whole, rather than a specific raid and give you a general feel for a spell rather than how to use it in a specific encounter - that I leave up to you to find out on your own this time (that is half the joy of healing!). Look out for the next part, in which I will talk a bit more about our cooldowns! And hopefully that won't take as long to produce, no promises however.