Seeing White: The Lament of a Melee DPS

The creation of the blog post took a rather strange path. Inspired by Cynwise’s series on Warlocks, I wanted to investigate how Death Knights were doing in the days since Wrath launched. I did not feel the need to write a doom and gloom article, because DKs have a strong representation amongst the player base, even if their representation among HM raid teams and 2200+ ranked PvP teams have dropped off slightly. In other words, I knew Death Knights weren’t broken, but I wanted to write a ‘State of the DK’ post (and I still will). When I dug through the data though, another idea struck me. That melee DPS have an inherent disadvantage to their ranged cousins, and I think it’s something that can – and should – be fixed.

If you are not familiar with melee DPS, I will briefly describe how our attacks are split up. Melee DPS have two sources of damage, white attacks and yellow attacks. Yellow attacks are often referred to as ‘special attacks’ in that they involve some sort of strength or magic enhanced attack versus the simple swing of a weapon. That swing of a weapon is called a white attack, or auto-attack. When a melee DPS player engages a boss, their white attacks are constantly on, adding in strength-modified weapon damage that can trigger a critical strike. During this time a melee player can also use their special attacks for enhanced damage, special debuffs, etc. Sounds like a pretty good deal right? Free weapon damage while using specials to bump the overall numbers. Well, it’s pretty patently un-awesome because it means that melee DPS is a slave to its weapon.

Here is a World of Log parse for myself (Unholy DK) and a Shadow Priest from my guild. Notice the percentage of the damage that comes from ‘Melee’ for the Death Knight.

Death Knight

Shadow Priest

Melee damage is third on the list of damaging attacks (14% of DPS) by a 2:1 margin over the fourth highest ability. And while each melee class might see that number differently, it is a significant hinderance in the search for balance among melee DPS classes. Leodar uses the LFR version of Gurthalak in that parse (which means my stat weights change from a non-Gurthalak Unholy DK’s and that I will generally out-DPS similar players of similar skill. Yes, because of one piece of gear), so my DPS is respectable. The Shadow Priest has no weapon handicap because auto-wanding is not part of her DPS (and you can be sure that if it was, she would be very unhappy). A caster/range DPS is not limited by weapon speed or weapon damage – only by the stats on that item. That’s the way it should be for melee DPS as well, but it isn’t.

Here is a chart showing the average DPS of each spec in Heroic Dragon Soul among the top 100 parses. When Rogues are added to the data melee is in a very respectable place, with 5 of our specs placing in the top half of average DPS, and 5 specs placing in the bottom half. It stinks when your spec ends up in the bottom half, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. The problem is that in this tier Rogues are the only class with access to the legendary weapons. So removing Rogues from the DPS list reveals different results (I also removed Frost Mages for the next point, since their DPS is so much lower than all other specs. I feel for you guys, and so does my level 84 aspiring Frost Mage). Among 18 raiding specs and without Rogues, melee DPS only places 2 specs (Arms and Ret) in the top half, and 5 specs in the bottom half. Yes, there is balance in the middle, but the difference between an Arms warrior (52.7k) and an Enhancement Shaman (44.5k) is astronomical.

Let’s look at recent ranked parses from other specs with percent of damage and ability damage rank:

Frost (13.3%, 4th)

Feral (17.9%, 2nd)

Retribution (9.6%, 5th)

Enhancement (15%, 1st) I’d just like to take a moment for a WTF. First?! Seriously? And with only 15% of all damage done. No wonder Enhancement is struggling to keep up.

Fury (26.1%, 1st) You know, I bet its just coincidence that our two lowest performing melee DPS specs (Fury, Enhancement) have melee as the top contributor to their damage. Or maybe not.

Arms (7.5%, 7th) Hmm. Our best non-rogue performing melee DPS spec has the lowest percentage and rank for melee damage as contributed to overall damage.

Three Rogue Specs (18.4%-28.2%, 1st-2nd) I really strongly considered keeping Rogues off this list due to the Legendary Effect that many of the top parses are bound to have. Instead, I decided to keep it as an indication of the difference that your weapon can make.

The above data is pretty damning in my mind. There is a direct correlation is the amount of DPS and the percentage of overall damage is done by melee attacks. If you place the specs in order of least percentage of overall damage to most, it will mirror the average DPS rank in heroic 10 man content as linked earlier in Raidbots. The one exception being flip-flop of spots between Enhancement and Feral, who are already right next to each other on the list.

During Blizzcon 2011 it was originally revealed that Monks did not have an auto-attack, meaning they would not be doing white damage. I was really, really excited to hear this, and I had hoped it would usher in a new way of looking at melee damage, but alas, auto-attack was added back into the Monk arsenal and the beat went on.

I think, in the long run, that white damage really needs to be eliminated as a major source of melee damage output. It makes us far too dependent on the quality of the weapon we can obtain, and ultimately limits good players from contributing as much damage as they could. We are already limited in movement fights where we must run within melee range of adds and by fight mechanics like Ultraxion where we can’t position ourselves behind the boss, so being limited by the quality of your weapon and your luck in getting it to drop (and winning it) is just too much. Specs that rely on weapon damage will not be able to compete due to this simple mechanic.

I don’t assert that I have it all figured out. We could implement a swing timer that mimics a cast bar to limit burst damage, and maybe add a non-special white attack for leveling purposes. We could even name it “Attack.” But even though I don’t have all the answers, I still believe I’ve found a problem, and I think it’s time to come up with ways to fix it.

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10 thoughts on “Seeing White: The Lament of a Melee DPS”

  1. I switched from my rogue to my mage as my main shortly after BC was release because it didn’t seems as fun anymore. I was doing less damage with comparable gear. This could be one of the reasons why it just felt wrong. A different weapon may have made all the difference. As this is really a condition of melee combat itself, unless the entire melee mechanic is reworked, I don’t see how it could change.

    1. This post was excruciating for me to write, because you can usually make numbers do anything that you want. But when I was done I felt pretty strongly about what I had found, and even more interesting was that the Legendary effect was a big part of the reason that Warriors, Death Knights, and Paladins had excellent DPS in Wrath.

      Since looking over all of that info I came to the conclusion that legendary weapons are actually bad for the game, and so is forcing melee DPS to be completely dependent on weapon speed, weapon DPS, and special weapon procs, rather than the primary and secondary stats we should be focusing on.

      And you are right, this can’t change this without a complete overhaul to the melee combat system, and the barriers to it are pretty significant. You would have to work with global cooldowns and swing timers in such a way that your character was not sitting there doing nothing (which is visually unappealing), and make sure that melee characters aren’t instantly killing clothies.

      That’s why I mentioned in my post that I was really excited to see Monk combat, because we would see Blizzard’s interpretation of martial art combat. Unfortunately it didn’t test well and they scrapped it.

  2. I really had no idea about the complexity of the melee combat…that sounds a little airheadish but, well, I’ve always favored casters (or my hunter) to melee. I have leveled a warrior, pally and dk to max level (well the dk was max level last expac). I always felt that I didn’t play them well, because my damage was never comparable to people who were trying to teach me. So the warrior and pally went prot, and the DK is a bank toon left on the server I used to play on.

    I think perhaps if I put as much research into them as I do my healers, I would do somewhat better, though I tend to be really bad at rotations. I have came a long way from the hunter who thought “a flagged player” meant putting hunters mark on them though…./facepalm.

    1. Well, consider also that ranged combat has equal complexity. What I’m really questioning here is why some specs, each expansion, have to rely heavily on white damage for DPS when the numbers show that higher white attack damage leads to lower overall damage almost every time.

      Also, think about this. Auto-attack takes absolutely no effort whatsoever. So if white damage takes up 15% of your overall damage (and you have no control over it), that means the player controls only 85% of the opportunities to maximize their DPS (and this includes Hunters too, some of which are Auto-Shot All-Stars). On the other hand, a caster is in control of 100% of their DPS.

  3. Excellent, thoughtful post! I honestly hadn’t even considered the Legendary weapon aspect before. Even in Dragon Soul, Gurthalak is so ridiculously optimal for Unholy Death Knights due to it’s high white damage output and minion proc that I had to take my LFR Gurth over a normal mode Ataraxis.
    It felt dirty, but the math says that by stacking up mastery LFR Gurth will outperform Ataraxis in Unholy by a respectable amount.

    As interesting and fun as these proc based and/or Legendary weapons are, I feel that they are more harmful than helpful for the game as a whole.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Kal. I’ve been keeping up with your blog but the commenting system had messed with my feedback.

      I’m really torn on things like Gurthalak, Maw, etc. Without interesting proc effects in-game weapons can get rather boring. And to be honest, I like mechanics that change our gearing strategies. The fact that Gurthalak was so powerful might be a problem, but the fact that a weapon (or tier bonus) could change stat weights is extremely cool in my opinion.

      A good example of a bad example is the DK T13 4 piece bonus. How much more fun would Frost DPS be if once you got the 4 piece bonus it then moved mastery up in stat priority AND made Frost Strike the preferred ability when the bonus was active during a Killing Machine proc. It would add a welcome level of complexity for good players looking to maximize their output. These are the kind of things missing from our class that would go a long way to making DK DPS more interesting and dynamic.

      I guess ultimately I don’t want to lump proc weapons and legendaries into the same category. And Legendaries need to be more legendary and less of a grind. It destroys class balance to have them so accessible, one of the only times you’ll ever hear me advocate for less accessibility for anything in WoW.

      1. First, thank you for your kind words about my blog! I was really excited when I saw you as part of NBI, because I feel that with the silence of several DK blogs over the last year, we as a class need some fresh authorship. I’m really excited to be a (small) part of the new generation of them!

        Second, my reply!
        I’ll agree with you that proc based gameplay does indeed add a great deal of fun and complexity to many specs. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that these procs shouldn’t be based upon gear, but rather be introduced as further variation to glyphs, talent tree skills, or through other easily attainable means.

        Take for example the DK T13 2 piece bonus- It is such a HUGE quality of life improvement for the typically feast/famine Unholy spec that it probably should just be baked into Unholy in general.

        In my round about way, the point I’m trying to make isn’t arguing against the existence of procs. They’re wonderful! Rather, I believe that far fewer of them should be based upon your gear. Attaining specific gear through an RNG based system shouldn’t have any effect on how fun our spec is to play (DK T13 2pc), or how viable it is for raiding (Unholy with Gurth).

      2. In general I agree with you. I’m actually working on a different post regarding weapons and loot tables, because if things don’t change mechanically for melee they need to have a way to get these game-changing weapons without relying on RNG as you mentioned.

  4. I played a DK for about 3 months at max leveling in Wrath and I discovered that I was HORRIBLE at Melee DPS. As a healer I know that I complain about you guys and Mages the most, but in the end I know that Melee DPS definitely gets the shit end of the stick. As the post describes, in addition you often are not favored in boss mechanics, which is a shame. There is nothing gamer-sexy than watching a DK or Ret Pally own on DPS.
    Thanks for the great post, I now know WAY more about melee DPS than I ever previously thought I would,.

    1. Melee was in a scary bad place concerning mechanics right at the start of T11. If you had a melee heavy group with no Frost DK (hmmm, like my guild did….) then even Magmaw was a gigantic pain in the ass during entry level raiding. I had to respec just for my guild to kill him, and was stuck in Frost spec until Gurth dropped in LFR.

      The thing that really sucks is that any boss mechanic that would favor melee would do so in such a blatantly bad way that I’m not sure there is a good solution.

      I really love melee DPS. I’ve been playing paladins and warriors (and now DKs) in every game since Diablo, and since I’ve been the main tank for my guild for 4 years (holy shit, that’s longer than I realized) and counting I know I won’t be shelving them in favor of my mage or incoming shaman and warlock.

      I tried to avoid as much QQ in this post as I could, but I can’t help but get a little annoyed every time we pull Yor’shaj, and in order for our shadow priest to switch targets she just turns her camera while I’m running across the whole room.

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