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WoW Rotations Explained

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WoW Rotations Explained

This article is primarily targeted at people who don’t play World of Warcraft, but have an interest in reading about the mechanics of it.

The term ‘rotation’ refers to how you use your abilities in a fight, and in particular it refers to your ‘bread and butter’ abilities which are used over and over. Every class has a number of ‘cooldowns’ as well–abilities with a long wait time (anywhere from 1 minute up to 15 minutes) which are used situationally.

‘Rotation’ is also a bit of a misnomer, as it implies that you do things in a certain order. This certainly used to be the case for many classes, but these days most classes use a priority-based rotation, where every time you have to use an ability you need to run through a quick decision tree in your head.

The priority might be as simple as always use A if it’s available; else always use B if it’s available; else always use C if available; etc. Or it might be more complicated, requiring you to consider the current game state. Between procs (passive abilities which trigger automatically and [usually] randomly) and resources which build up over time, the decision for which ability to use can sometimes be rather complicated.

Cooldowns and the GCD

First and foremost, a quick point of terminology. Cooldown is how long you have to wait between using abilities. Some abilities might not have their own cooldowns, while others can have cooldowns anywhere from a second up to a week! Those extraordinarily long cooldowns aren’t usually aren’t for combat abilities, but rather for things like crafting.

GCD stands for Global Cooldown. The vast majority of ‘attacks’ and other combat abilities are ‘on the GCD’, which is 1.5 seconds long, and means that you can in most cases only use one attack per GCD.

For most intents and purposes, you can think of GCD as being analagous to a ‘turn’ in a boardgame.

Paladin Tanking Rotation

The thing that’s got me thinking about rotations is that I’ve started playing my paladin, and I’m finding the rotation to be one of the more complicated rotations I’ve tried. Tanking, by the way, means that your job is to hold the attention of the mobs and take all the damage. This as opposed to healing (obvious) and DPS (acronym for damage per second, think of them as glass cannons).

Currently at level 72 (level 80 being the max level as of writing, and level 85 the max when the new expansion drops in less than a week), my rotation goes like this:

  1. If I have 3 points of Holy Power, use Shield of the Righteous.
  2. Else if Crusader Strike/Hammer of Righteousness is available, use that (they share a cooldown, and one the former is used for single targets while the latter for groups).
  3. Else if Avenger’s Shield is available, use that.
  4. Else if Judgement (sic) is available, use that.
  5. Else, this is a free GCD, where at my discretion I might use a less optimal ability just to do something or I might just spend a a GCD doing nothing.

This probably looks fairly simple on paper, and indeed it is a lot easier to pull off when I’m tanking a boss. However, things get really hairy when I’m tanking large groups of enemies, and I have to split my attention between the rotation, trying to spread aggro around evenly to the enemies around me, and in particular trying to notice and react quickly whenever I lose an enemy and they start going after the DPS or healer.

There are also some caveats which are not obvious from the rotation I’ve listed above.

  • First and foremost, the idea that sometimes the correct thing to do is nothing is a surprisingly difficult paradigm to get into. Coming from the land of DPS, where you’re constantly trying to use your resources (including time!) as efficiently as possible, it’s really hard not to push a button just because you can.
  • The second step, Crusader Strike/Hammer of Righteousness, is where I get my holy power from. Every time I connect with those, I get 1 point of holy power (which maxes out at 3 points). These spells share a 3-second cooldown, meaning that in effect every other GCD is spent using one of these two abilities. This has two consequences.
    1. First, it means that even if I’ve just used Shield of the Righteous to burn my holy power, I immediately followed up with an attack that gave me another point. That means Shield is always available and tempting to use, but it’s extremely inefficient to use with less than full power.
    2. Second, it means I get into the mindset of “Crusader strike, something else, crusader strike, something else”, and in essence I subconsciously move step 2 up above step 1 as the highest priority. This is incorrect, however. If Shield of the Righteous misses (and thus doesn’t burn the holy power), the correct thing to do is immediately use it again until it connects. The “every other GCD” mindset also exacerbates other mistakes I might make. For example, if I have 3 holy power but use Avenger’s Shield instead of Shield of the Righteous, my natural habit is going to be to follow it up with a crusader strike, but what I should do is try to correct myself immediately and throw in Shield of the Righteous next.
  • There’s a random proc on crusader strike/hammer of righteousness that immediately resets the 15-second cooldown of Avenger’s shield. This proc can happen multiple times in a row, in which case I might need to throw out Avenger’s Shield 3 or 4 times in a row, or I might go an entire fight without seeing it. So while the first two priorities are predictable (I always know when I’ll have 3 holy power, and I always know that Crusader Strike is available every other action), thereafter I can’t plan ahead and have to make the decision on the fly.

Hunter Beast Mastery DPS Rotation

Hunters are a pure DPS-class, and you can spec yourself as Beast Mastery (emphasizing your pet), Marksmanship (emphasizing your personal ranged skills), or Survival (more of a utilitarian build). Hunters use a resource called ‘focus’ which is limited (you always have 100-110 max focus, depending on spec) but regenerates quickly and automatically. Compare this to mana-using classes, which usually have very large pools of mana (20,000+), but mana regeneration in combat is usually relatively difficult and limited.

My hunter is specced for beast mastery, and the rotation is actually fairly simple. My decision tree goes something like this:

  1. Make sure I don’t have maxed-out focus. Maxed-out focus means wasted focus, since it constantly regenerates itself. If I I’m close to full, I’ll usually use two Arcane Shots (which costs 25 focus) to bring myself down.
  2. Make sure I keep my focus high enough that I can use Kill Command (costs 40 focus) whenever its 6-second cooldown is up.
  3. Try to keep Serpent Sting, a powerful damage-over-time ability, on the enemy(ies). More important for bosses, less important for normal enemies.
  4. As long as I’m not in danger of maxing out my focus, use Steady Shot, which is a slow, relatively weak attack that regenerates my focus.

And… that’s it. In a nutshell, while the paladin rotation is all about managing cooldowns and using things at the right time, the hunter rotation is all about managing focus, and aside from your ‘signature’ shot you have a lot of leeway. Any time I’m between around 50 and 80 focus, either steady shot or arcane shot are perfectly reasonable, and even if I’m not in that golden zone and use the wrong one it really doesn’t set me back too far.

There’s also a lot less pressure on DPS. If I mess up the rotation in a boss fight, the absolute worst case scenario is that I might have to wait a few seconds to build up focus and cast Kill Command late. In other words, I just lose a bit of damage. Compare this to tanking, where especially at the beginning of the fight a botched rotation can mean not having sufficient aggro on everything and not being able to pick them up quickly enough before they start wailing on the squishies.

If you found this interesting, please let me know. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who likes reading about mechanics. 🙂

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