WoW Class Design: Hunters

I decided to review hunters. I can’t say that I feel it will be a wholely balanced review, simply because I care about hunters too much. My main and first level 60 and 70 character was a hunter, it was my main raiding character for WoW 1.0 and TBC and I have tried pretty much everything with the hunter until late spring 07 when I stopped WoW for a while.

What is probably good is that I know other classes rather well too. I have 6 of 9 classes at 70 and I have been raid leading extensively hence contending with all classes at high level.

I don’t play my hunter much anymore, even since I returned. To understand why let me try to give a sort of post-mortem or rather my personal current review of the Hunter class design.

History

Historically hunters have seen two major revamps: Patch 1.7 (Hunter class review patch) and Patch 2.0.1 (TBC prep patch, which included all class changes). The reason why 2.0.1 was a more drastic change for hunters is evident by the fact that a main stat mechanism (the AGI to attack power scaling) got changed. That this was no small feet showed by the fact that Blizzard touched many items to adjust for this change.

Going mentally back to 1.7, hunters had a reputation for being useless in groups. In part that was unjustified. Rather hunters had it easier to accidentally cause havoc. One is hunters inherent need for space. The other is the fact that hunter pets are on defensive (not passive) by default and that pet handling is not so simple and added another add potential to the mix. Furthermore, traps were not as trivial as sheep and not as known as sap. Hence hunters had the reputation of bringing no crowd control and causing wipes. Part of this was based on what happened in groups the other part was just lack of using existing abilities (like consistently putting traps down). Traps were hard to use mid-combat, and required feign death+retrap acrobatics. Early on pets didn’t show as frames in the party making them for practical purposes unhealable, and additionally early pet survivability was rather low.

By 1.7 the hunter situation got markedly better. Pets showed on party frames, they got more survivability. Hunters got a generic buff with 1.7 which they needed and time was very good for that patch period. In fact overall hunters were fine until late AQ40 and Naxx raiding, when their DPS couldn’t keep up with other classes (even hybrid option classes like DPS warriors). Warlocks suffered similar issues. Both these classes began to being benched to make space for other classes. A distinct limiting factor for hunters was the lack of mana regens, as well as scaling of efficiency with itemization.

Beside the mana issue, itemization also led to another criticism of the hunter community: Lack of weapon selection and the lack of weapons meaning much in terms of upgrade relative to what melee weapons meant for physical melee dps, or subjectively even wand upgrades (raid level wants often read higher dps values than top end ranged weapons). But mostly it turned out that slow weapons were best, and that itemization didn’t deliver slow weapons often. By that effect a crossbow from Blackwing Lair (second raid instance) remained the best weapon through the full next instance and only got challangers late in Naxxramas. While new weapons dropped, due to the nature of shot rotations, they turned out to not be actual upgrades, certainly also contributing to the relative drop of hunters in the raiding game.

For this reason some theorycrafting hunters called for a new shot rotation in which diverse weapon speeds could be meaninful upgrades, and also that weapon DPS more closely represents what damage one will deal with the weapon.

Back then a hunter rotation was dominated by three spells, aimed shot, multi-shot and possibly arcane shot. The bracket of the rotation would be the cooldown of aimed shot, and the other shots would be multishot when available. Hunters get automatic attack shots (auto-shots). These are on a steady rhythm but are delayed when another shot is cast. In the old mechanism an auto-shot that was coming up while aimed was casting would chase the aimed shot immediately after it released. The reason why slow weapons were best (~ 3 second cast time) was because it matched the aimed-shot cast time best, hence minimal time delay for an auto-shot. With haste effect (that speed up weapons) the slow BWL crossbow came very close to hardly losing any auto-shot time, while a very fast bow at 1.5 second would lose a full auto-shot damage each cycle.

However the good part of this rotation was that the timing was spell-cast-time and global cooldown time driven. Because the auto-shot chaser was automatic to aimed shot there was no real way to squeeze oneself out of the auto-shot damage.

I personally felt that the shot rotation itself was good. The real problem was that itemization didn’t match the mechanism. A solution would have been to tune most weapons around 3.0 weapon speed (plus or minus) for raiding, and have a few fast weapons for interrupting.

Patch 2.0.1 and TBC

By the time guilds got to 4 horsemen it was rather blatant that hunters needed changes to help them in PVE endgame. Many boss kill shots showed 1-2 hunters and 2-3 warlocks at most, when balanced would mean 5 each. I certainly was excited that on paper the announced changes for 2.0.1 addressed hunter concerns somehow.

First off there was a new aspect in the leveling progression: Aspect of the Viper, finally an inherent mechanism to manage mana return. Second was the announced steady shot, advertised as the new boss of shot rotations. In turn aimed shot was declared to never having been intended in shot rotati0ns. Now when Aimed shot fired, it would no longer chase an auto-shot, but rather it would restart the auto-shot timer (hence add weapon-speed delay).

Additionally pets got another survivability boost, and they would finally show up in the default raid interface.

On paper this looked possibly good. In practice it turned out that Aspect of the Viper had too low mana return to alleviate the mana problem. The second problem was that another aspect, Hawk, combined with it’s talented improved version meant a drastic difference in DPS. When hunters started raiding it became blatantly obvious quickly that in order to keep up with other damage dealing classes, we could not leave Aspect of the Hawk, in fact we needed to pot heavily and chain chug mana pots to keep up with mana using classes who still had their mana return functions functional. Raid DPS of hunters before 2.1 was woeful. On the up side, the new 5-man heroic and 10-man instance design encouraged CC and make traps attractive. By allowing retrapping in combat, hunters desirability in 5-man became appropriate.

Still during leveling arcane shot, which was made to scale with gear, was nerfed down. Some argue that this may have been exactly the damage that hunters then missed to compete, but I’m not convinced.

At the same time first arena results came in. The results were stunning. Hunters were the least played class in arenas and suffered lower average rankings than any other class. Hunters weren’t just in trouble in PVE, they were also in trouble in PVP (even though they had a reputation to the contrary).

2.1

Blizzard was busy to complete lots of things, fix the consumables situation, complete black temple, retune the raiding game. Hunters did get a DPS buff. Before 2.1 a deep marksman build was the best DPS build to be had, with BM close. Survival tree was lackluster even for the low hunter standards. Not surprisingly there was a buff to both BM and Survival in 2.1. The survival tree got extra mana return options, and more damage potential, the BM tree got extra pet damage and pet survivability. Pets before 2.1 were very vulnerable to any AoE and finally got a talent to help mitigate that damage. Mend pet got significantly buffed allowing hunters to be more proactive in keeping their pets alive while not losing DPS. It used to require channeling hence taking hunter out of damage dealing completely. These were all good changes.

At the end, the tree that didn’t get buffed remained at it’s gimped state. Mana return was still an issue though, as only survival hunters got some extra mana return.

The real issue in many ways was however something that is somewhat unexpected: The shot rotation. The change of aimed to steady shot as the core spammable shot had some interesting implications. Steady shot has a 1.5 cast time (affected by haste). And since the cast time is so short and one can chain steady shots a new phenomena became apparent: How auto shot was implemented internally. Auto shot, while firing automatically, has an internal cast time of 0.5 seconds. This is to prevent hunters from auto-shooting while running. How the effect of this is that if a hunter spams steady-shot without pausing, they actually prevent auto-shots from firing completely. In fact any action, also a multi-shot or arcane shot can delay an auto-shot and it turns out that the timing of all these shots has very significant impact on the DPS output.

What’s more is that the relative timing of these shots matter, rather than global cooldown or long channeling times. I.e. if steady shot is on 1.3 and auto-shot is on 2.45 the relative difference from 2*1.3 to 2.45 in this example, which is just 0.15 seconds is what the player has to time for.

The result was that people with significant lag had very poor dps. Also people who just didn’t know how to precisely weave their shots for optimal DPS did suffer a substantial drop-off. Hunters inadvertently became the only class where sub-second timing because the crux of their damage dealing potential.

Soon types of work-arounds were found, mostly in form of shot rotation macros, which would try to prevent the hunter from accidentally “clipping” an auto-shot. These macros were sub-optimal as they relied on a server response to go to the next stage. For high lag hunters they still lost DPS using these macros. To perform optimally hunters needed to consistently weave their shots at these tight timing levels. Playing a hunter in raid at high level meant playing guitar hero on steriods for 4+ hours straight. And that still mostly to just compete with other classes who’d have 1.5 seconds minimum to consider their next button, often longer.

Basically what happened is that in an attempt to solve the Aimed shot rotation, a new rotation was found that had many pathologies that didn’t occur at all before. The fact that auto-shot had a cast time was inconsequential in an aimed shot rotation. So was latency and timing, as the auto-shot chaser was guaranteed and aimed shot was not chainable.

This is the mechanisms hunters have since 2.0.1 and it’s unchanged till today. I personally considered that mechanism broken the moment I realized how it functioned. It cannot be intended that in a RPG based setup, tight timing matters. Clearly this is unintended, just as the dominance of slow weapons in the old rotation was. But at least the old rotation wasn’t broken in the sense that it disadvantaged lagged players significantly. Also while in the old system people could perform better and worse depending on certain decisions, even a not very well informed hunter could perform sensibly. In the new system uninformed hunters (which are most players) will hopelessly underperform by default.

An attempt to illustrate the complexity of the shot rotation can be found on the EJ board. However, you have to add that haste changes with procs throughout the game, making these timing additionally unpredictable.

2.2

The main thing to mention about 2.2 is the change to Aspect of the Viper. It’s mana return utility has been improved. Otherwise 2.2 contains mostly nerfs to CC options in PVP, like duration of freezing trap and scare beast in PVP.

However, this is now 6+ months since the first arena results are in. Here are the current ones:

From Vhairi’s Sketchpad. Hunters are consistently the least played class in top ranked teams in all categores (2v2, 3v3, 5v5). One has to additionally consider that hunters are among the most popular classes to play still.

Looking at 2.3

Hunters are announced to get a ranged dispel on arcane, and mild scaling buffs to traps and stings. Unfortunately the scaling buffs are inconsequential. The range dispel has the potential to be both overpowered and useless.

The real issue is something different. Hunters have more positional constraints than other classes. The dead zone is a close proximity area in which the hunter cannot use ranged attacks (and not necessarily melee ones). In melee hunters are comparatively weak. So the main concern for opposing classes is simply to get close. The main concern for hunters is to keep or gain distance.

The dead zone is a brilliant concept and in my view one of the best concept in the hunter class design. It makes space matter. The real problem for hunters is not that space matters more to them than other classes, the problem is that we don’t have sufficient escapes. In order to keep distance a hunter usually has to move, this does reduce our damage potential significantly, which is very good, but the problem there is that in fact we do have insufficient methods to guarantee that we can even move.

What is needed to help hunters is more control over space. Now since 2.0.1 most CC options of hunters in PVP have been nerfed. This even though hunters are as bad off in PVP as they were when things first surfaced.

A second related issue is LoS, another great concept. All ranged casters have to handle LoS in arenas due to bridges and pillars. However, hunters have to combine the LoS issue with their space constraints. That is if a melee runs around the pillar to survive, we cannot just close in on the pillar to reduce the running radius to get the opponent into LoS, we additionally will be not able to deal damage the moment the opponent does get into LoS. Pillar running is additionally bothering for hunters. The problem isn’t LoS, it’s that gaining LoS doesn’t gain attack potential or ranged CC for hunters generically. Again, hunters need an extra control in that situation or pillar running against a hunter will remain effective.

None of the PVP buffs for 2.3 address any of these issues, hence it doesn’t appear that hunters will be any better of in arena PVP the next major content patch cycle.

Summary

Hunters are currently:

  • Playing with a broken shot rotation mechanism, that is latency and micro-timing sensitive.
  • Need additional ways to control space to be competitive in arena PVP but there is no help in sight.

Currently the hunter design has major issues and need fixing of what’s actually broken. Unfortunately the first makes endgame raiding not fun as hunter, the latter makes endgame PVP not fun. This may well explain why my hunter (and former main) of almost 2 years is parked and occasionally gets to farm materials.

It’s sad really because one core concept of WoW hunter design: – space sensitivity (death zone, trap positioning, flare spotting), reduced damage while moving, dangerous if left unbothered static – is brilliant.

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