[4/8/13: Six months later and I see this post getting quite a lot of attention on various forums. While I'm glad of that, I do want to make sure people finding their way to it just now also see the follow-up posts in the Healing Theory sequence. The first is here, and the third is particularly relevant to this discussion. Those posts are further developments of the ideas that first came to me while writing this one. While I still stand by the main ideas of this post, it was more of a reaction to certain discussions at the launch of the expansion, whereas the later sequence is meant to be a more general exploration of healing principles and conclusions. ~H]
When I recently made a post on EJ about how healers are, as they always do at the beginning of an expansion, overly obsessing about Spirit, the first reply I got explained it in the most simple and accurate way possible: “Fundamentally I’m pretty sure most healers are very, very bad theorycrafters. There’s always been a lot of magical thinking, faulty logic and poor contextual analysis.”
Based on my experiences theorycrafting and writing for a healing class for a few years now, I can’t deny that in any fashion. When I quoted it on twitter someone told me, “you don’t have to be a theorycrafter to be a good healer.” Well, that’s partially true. You don’t have to be an “active” theorycrafter to be good at any class. You don’t have to be the one making the spreadsheet–after all, there’s only one of him. But you have to have enough of an understanding of the numbers underlying the class to interpret what that person tells you and reflect it in your play. This is well-accepted for DPS, but for healing, people have difficulty thinking the same way. Just because your task varies more with context, you’re not going to be a good player by just going and doing whatever you feel like without regard to the same kinds of tools.
I’m just going to pick out one piece of it today, one that arises regularly at the beginning of each expansion. Everyone goes nuts for more mana regen. Picking Spirit items and gemming Spirit is one thing, but talk about using Spirit flasks and Spirit food is very common. In fact in most communities the common wisdom is that that makes more sense than using Int food/flasks. Now, for the spoiler version: that’s wrong. Use Int food and flasks. But you can read below for more on both the right and wrong thought processes here.
Spirit is in no way a bad stat (for Druids at least–I can’t comment in detail on other classes but the qualitative results below will be the same). But most people’s understanding of why they should choose it goes about this far:
“I’ve been running out of mana so far this expansion. I should get more Spirit than I already have.”
Literally–that’s it. I’m not actually aware of a single post or bit of analysis, for Druids at least, that takes it further than this. Now, even if we imagine for the moment that the second sentence follows from the first (and I will explain below that it emphatically does not), the first point is that this is a hopeless mode of analysis. It has no numbers in it and no limit or conclusion. It’s a blind guess at how to play WoW correctly. On any DPS forum (well, on EJ), a post like that would get tossed from the thread.
The Basic Tradeoff
Fundamentally what this is about is the strength of your heals vs. the total amount of mana you can spend over the course of a fight. Which stat is exactly best for the strength of your heals may vary by class, but the basic framework has been made vary homogeneous–Int increases all heals by a standard amount, secondary stats tend to improve throughput by around half as much as Int, and Spirit regens the same amount for everyone (specifically, each Spi adds 0.564 MP5 during combat, on top of the 6000 base MP5 you have). The only real class-based variance will come from the occasional ability that scales extremely strongly with Spirit (Mana Tide is perhaps the only remaining one, and even then only in a 25-man) (edit: Chris notes in the comments that the new Spirit-based Rapture may be another).
How do we evaluate how much benefit this extra mana gets us? That’s the key question. And the point I’m going to keep coming back to is that if all you say is “well I’m picking Spirit because I think need more mana” or “with poor gear early in the expansion, I need to build my regen,” you’re not answering it. In fact, you’re not answering anything. Spirit is a stat like any other–you have to measure what it gets you and compare to other stats. We’re going to get into that below, but first, the most common stumbling block for people:
“I’m running out of mana. I have to get enough Spirit to get through the fight, and then I can worry about other stats”
If the only thing you get from this post is why this doesn’t make sense, you’ll be on your way to being a better healer.
Just a Few Numbers (nothing scary)
Every class has their “core” spells–the strong, efficient spells, usually with some kind of cooldown so they’re not they only spells you use. For example, for Druids, it’s Wild Growth, Lifebloom, and Swiftmend. Circle of Healing, Riptide, etc. are similar. You want to use these spells a lot and you generally use them regularly through the whole fight. Most importantly, they are very inelastic with respect to mana: you want to use them when you need them. Your mana resources will determine how much is left after all the “core” spells you cast, the amount you can spend on “filler” spells. Filler spells aren’t necessary bad–they’re key parts of your skillset (Rejuvenation, Divine Light, etc.), but it’s important to realize that spamming them heavily tends to result in inefficient healing.
Most importantly this informs how to think about Spirit. What it buys you is more casts of filler spells over the course of the fight. Let’s work an example: as a Druid, let’s say I used a Spirit flask, 1000 Spirit. Over the course of, let’s say, 3 minutes of healing, that 1000 Spirit will get me just over 20000 mana. Or, roughly enough to cast 2 Rejuvenations. So that’s the first step. In my head, I’ve relabeled Flask of Falling Leaves as “Flask of 2 Rejuvs.” Suddenly it does not seem very compelling. Depending on your class, you probably feel the same way about the “Flask of 1 extra Greater Heal” or whatever it may be.
What about an Int flask? Well, in my pre-raid gear I have well under 10000 Int (remember that armor specialization and other % bonuses from talents should not be included here). So 1000 Int increases all of my healing by around 10% (edit: Erdluf points out in comments that 5% is a better napkin estimate here, but as he says, the conclusions are unchanged). Including those Wild Growths and other core spells that didn’t benefit one whit from added Spirit. There is no world in which I’d take the Flask of 2 Rejuvs over that.
Most importantly, definitely not the “new expansion, undergeared” world. That’s when you should be most concerned about heal strength, not regen. When everyone else is going “I’m undergeared, I really need regen,” I want you to train yourself to think, “I’m undergeared, I really need to get my heals up to a decent size.” Because you know what will happen? Your core spells will start to work like they’re supposed to. They’ll keep people up more easily and you won’t have to try to spam Rejuv or Greater Heal just to keep everything from falling apart.
If you’re running short of mana, you can either 1) devote your resources to getting more, 2) make your key heals stronger while using the inefficient ones less. Now, which is likely to better is a question of math. If Spirit were far, far stronger than it is now, option 1 might be clearly superior. But it’s not, and in any case, if you haven’t tried to do any math, you really have nothing to contribute on which option is more likely to be more useful.
I think there’s one big thing causing people to be so biased towards option 1. Option 2 ask you to change what you’re doing. Not only to relearn your habits slightly to cut back on inefficient spells, but also in some psychological way, if you believe me that option 2 is correct, it makes running out mana “your fault.” It’s much, much easier to believe that you ran of mana and the group wiped because you didn’t have enough mana (if only you’d had that extra 1000 Spirit, those two Rejuvs would have saved everything, right?). But if I’m telling you that healing can be done successfully without stacking Spirit out the wazoo, and you wiped because you ran out of mana, you have to come to grips with that toughest of all realizations: you could have played better.
So if you can’t let go of the notion that your healing problems are your gear’s fault, there’s nothing I can do for you. You’ll stack more regen and learn to get through the content (little secret: you still probably eventually succeeded due to further practice, not due to the one extra Greater Healing Wave you got to cast). But if you’re interested in getting better, let this post break you away from the common wisdom surrounding all of this. It’s not the size of your mana pool that matters. It’s how you use it.