What can we learn from other classes about how to deal with Focus and this newfound potential to hand out a variety of buffs?
Our new resource puts us in the company of rogues, warriors, feral druids and death knights. They have resource pools that are, like Focus, 100-point systems and are quite different from mana as a type. They regenerate faster but are consumed faster as well. During a rotation they are volatile, rising and crashing like wave action instead of like the ebb tide that we had with mana. Such dynamism leaves 100-point systems with much greater propensity to cap and bottom out. Avoiding the lower dps found at such resource extremes requires a lot more on-the-fly decision-making about what should be paid for immediately, what needs to be saved for, and what needs to be postponed. Via such concerns, the resource level of a 100-point pool becomes part of the calculations in which dps abilities are selected. This stands in dramatic contrast to the incredibly small amount of attention that mana required of hunters in Wrath. I don’t know about you, but I think that this basic distinction makes Focus a lot more interesting than mana. I also think that we can go further draw out some general principles of 100-point pools.
Principle 1: Unspent resources are wasted dps. This is a marked departure from mana’s ethos. Before 4.0.1 it really did not matter how much mana we had or spent, be it 100% or 5%, so long as we maintained our rotation until the end of the fight. Focus is different. The constant expenditure of available Focus is important for two reasons. The first is that, like fury warriors with their over-abundance of abilities (some are even off the global), we do not lack for shots to use. And because we can use more shots more often, we should. It leads to higher dps. Since we’re no longer paced by a 1.5 second global, I think it is fair to say that any amount of maintained Focus is an Arcane Shot that we could have fired. This in turn means that any amount of saved Focus is lost dps (there are some exceptions, which I will get to later). That’s quite a departure from mana.
The second reason we should spend Focus whenever we can is that a full bar is wasted dps. A general tenet for dps warriors is that every point of Rage generated past 100 is lost dps. That lost Rage could have paid for another Heroic Strike but instead it vanished into the ether. Having a 100-point resource pool is like having an allowance of $1 a day but your parents won’t let you have more than $5 at a time. With such a limit, it is in your interest to spend your money very often because every day that you stay at $5 you are literally losing money (and therefore candy, comic books, etc.). Our new default impulse with Focus is the same: we always want to be spending enough that we aren’t losing Focus (and therefore dps) to the cap. Warriors know this. Cats know this. We need to embrace it too and forget the goodness of a full mana bar.
Principle 2: A signature ability not used on cooldown is lost dps. (For the purposes of this dicussion we can lump our dots in with our signature shots, but I don’t address them directly since activated dots are not the same or even present across all 100-point pools.) This second principle pushes us in an opposite direction from the first (and makes our rotations interesting in the process). It directs us to sometimes save resources rather than always spend as soon as we have enough for a dump shot. While it is true that saved Focus is usually wasted dps, it is also wasting dps to not use Kill Command, Chimera Shot or Explosive Shot on cooldown because they’re just that good (see Frostheim’s arguments on this point here). This principle has long been in action for Rogues. A rogue could obey the first principle above by using a dump ability like Sinister Strike monotonously and not letting much energy go to waste. We could do much the same with Arcane Shot. However, the rogue would be losing a lot of dps by not using other specials. Given enough combo points, there are simply better ways to spend a global cooldown than Sinister Strike. The easy parallel for hunters is this: given that a signature shot is off cooldown, it is a better way to spend a global than Arcane Shot. We have signature shots, rogues have combo-point-spending abilities, and warriors have signature strikes. They are all things worth saving for that break up the monotony of filler abilities and improve dps. This is a general trend among 100-point pools that should strongly discourage us from thinking that Blizzard wants us to merely alternate between Arcanes and Steadies/Cobras (an unfortunately common practice from what I’ve seen). I believe it is fair to say that 100-point systems take their vigor and complexity from the weighing of competing demands over a decidedly finite resource pool. Looked at another way, the sum of potential expenditures per second of 100-point pools is generally greater than their growth rates; as a consequence, it matters not merely that they are spent but also how they are spent.
What separates us from our new kin (still speaking at a general level) is the the degree of control we have over our resource. After all, absent from the preceding class comparisons was any sort of equivalent for Steady Shot or Cobra Shot. Warriors are limited in their Rage generation and expenditure by their white damage and the cooldown on Heroic Strike. Rogues have a fixed generation rate and a consumption structured by Combo Points. Death knights’ Runic Power is bounded by the regimented expenditure of Runes. The gimmick that Blizzard has given us is that we can be much more flexible when it comes to obeying the two principles given above for spending and accumulating our resource. We need not wait on Focus’s native growth rate because we can boost it and do dps in the process with Steadies and Cobras. We need not despair at a full bar while waiting for something like Heroic Strike to be ready; our Arcane Shots are on a one-second cooldown. It is true that we lack the structured complexity of companion resource systems (Combo Points+Energy, Runes+Runic Power), but we make up for it in the unstructured complexity of our ever-changing combinations of Arcanes, signature shots and Steadies/Cobras. We now have a lot in common with warriors, rogues and ferals, but we’re also quite distinct too.
The fact that our pets can now provide a diverse array of buffs is great in the general sense that we are now more useful to our raids. However, I think the way we are providing these buffs is also great. While we can only offer one at a time with our pet, we can provide almost any buff or debuff that a raid could desire. This puts hunters at the top of the list for filling empty dps slots because our buff/debuff utility (one but any at a time) is by its nature complementary rather than redundant to a raid’s existing set of buffs/debuffs. And we’re the only class that can provide complementary buffs in this manner; it’s our niche. Hunters are now the final ingredient rather than the extra rice, a vowel instead of a third n. Of course, all this versatility on our part requires actually having the relevant pets tamed and leveled. I suspect a new line in the definition of a max-level huntard will be “has only one pet.”
This new plethora of buffs puts us into new conversations. We now have to coordinate with pallies and shamans and priests and druids (and so on) rather than just complaining to them. Because they’ve been at it longer than us, we have things we can learn from them.
Addons help. If we can learn anything from pre-4.0.1 pallies, it is that having a buff addon really helps when coordinating multiple sources of buffs and realizing which buffs are missing. While it is possible to eyeball buffs and guess which one is absent each time you join a raid, it is much easier and effective to simply know via an addon. There will be holdouts and purists in Cata, but my guess is that most hunters will become converts to whatever our “Hunter Power” ends up being.
Knowing who gives what helps. Raid leaders know this dictate well: creating a good set of buffs and debuffs requires knowing who provides them (see Frostheim’s list to get an idea of which classes and which pets provide which buffs). Likewise, if we’re to be the final piece in a raid comp’s puzzle, we need to know what puzzle we’re completing. That requires us to attain a higher level of knowledge of other classes than we’ve had to have before (outside of pvp of course). While an addon should diminish this need to some extent, actual knowledge is the only thing that will help us guess how we should fill our active pet slots in town before the raid convenes and the addon can kick in. In this sense, post-4.0.1 hunters don’t just need to learn from other classes, they also need to learn about them.
A pet buff is usually worse than a player buff. By this I’m not referring to the fact that some pet buffs are mathematically worse than player buffs, like the Shale Spider’s weak kings. I mean instead that it is generally better to have a player provide a buff than a pet. We know this from Warlocks and from our own experience. Pets are less likely to receive heals than players. Pet buffs behave like auras or have short durations, meaning that they can disappear under a large number of circumstances including pet death and owner death. Generally speaking, player buffs are more likely to persist through changing circumstances (there are exceptions, I know). So, if you’re given a choice between your Silithid’s aura and a Priest’s Fort buff, bring out a different pet and let the priest provide the stamina.