Edit: The reason I didn’t know there was a SB: UA is because there isn’t one and the Wowhead comments aren’t updated. GG.
Recently, the guild chat conversation turned to beginning a warlock. One of my guildmates started a new warlock, and had said earlier in raid that she could never get one above 20, to which I jokingly said I’d teach her.
So now we spent the next 20 minutes or so talking warlock stuff in guild chat.
She’s only 12 or so right now, but we got into what exactly soul shards and soulburn are and do. She had a warlock back in Wrath, but it’s different now in Cataclysm, especially the whole soulburn mechanic. As she put it, you have to relearn it all over again.
So I hit “Save Draft” on my glyphs post, and put it aside as I pulled up a fresh blank post. Let’s talk about soul shards and soulburn. Hold onto your cowls!
I’m told that soul shards were basically the same until the changes in Wrath. Soul Shards were actual items that took up bag space. They did not stack at all, so I was a tad sympathetic to jewelcrafters who rejoiced when gems became stackable.
In Patch 1.9 (Gates of AQ), shard bags became available. Shard bags worked like any other profession-specific bag: only soul shards could be kept in them. Otherwise your shards went into any old bag slot. Addons crept up (I even used one!) that would maintain a certain number of shards (presumably, the size of your shard bag) in a certain bag and would delete any extra shards for you. This allowed affliction locks to continue using their execute phase spell, Drain Soul, without having to micromanage shards on top of it.
In Wrath, some things like summoning and soulwells still cost shards, and you had to farm for them when doing things — like summoning — that used up mass amounts of shards. Eight levels below is the lowest you can go before you grey out of experience or honor. I remember in Naxx 2.0 hopping down to the ground where level 72 mobs were to drain some souls so I could resummon the lazy raid members who couldn’t take the first summons I handed out. (Now my guildy readers will know why Pon is a Grumpy about summoning people after break.) The hilarious part was when my guildmates didn’t understand that I had to be channeling a spell while the mob died in order to get a shard, so they ran around just flat-out killing things, with the whole-hearted intention of helping me out, but before I could get the channel going.
Soon after, in Patch 3.0.3 (Wrath), the Glyph of Souls (minor glyph) was changed to reduce the mana cost instead of the shard requirement of Ritual of Souls (soulwell / cookie jar). Thus started the movement away from requiring shards for spells.
Drain Soul also got an addition that you got a chance to generate a shard on the tick rather than at the end of the cast. This is important because we no longer had to go farm for shards in the middle of raid. You could start casting Drain Soul mid-combat on anything (this is why trash was important to me) and get some shards off the ticks. It wasn’t the best DPS plan, since Drain Soul then did more damage in the sub-25% health than above that mark, but we had a quality-of-life change for the better regarding shard generation. (You could also drain off target dummies in this manner.)
Demonology got the shard cost removed from Soul Fire upon proccing their new talent Decimation. (Demonology got a talent tree revamp in 3.1.) Yeah, Soul Fire used to cost a shard! Now you know why I’ve never liked the stupid spell!
Everything changed in Patch 4.0 (Cataclysm). We went from common spells requiring soul shards to operate to the system with Soulburn, which adds an effect if you use a soul shard, and you can’t use this ability all the time. We went from a bag of shards to counting your maximum shards on one hand, literally overnight.
The shard bags that existed got turned into regular bags, including my beloved Abyssal Bag, the magnificent 32-slotter shard bag that I crafted for myself. It also dropped 10 slots because that was the largest regular bag size (Glacial Bags) at the time of Cataclysm’s launch.
Soul Shards in Cataclysm
In Cataclysm, you can only have 3 Soul Shards at any one time. They are also now part of your health and mana bars on your character unit frames. It’s a secondary resource for us alongside mana. Paladins have Holy Power, Death Knights have Runes, Shaman sometimes have totems in custom unit frames, and so Warlocks have Soul Shards.
They actually look like the old shards did if you use the default UI, or they can be just three purple blocks if you use a custom unit frame. You can also use addons like Power Auras to tell you when you’ve lost or retained a shard, like I do. I have a set of Power Auras that light up with how many shards I’ve used.
Assuming you haven’t used nay shards yet upon logging in, you will start with three soul shards. You can spend a shard by casting Soulburn. You’ll get a purple swirly circling your feet for 15s, which is is how long you have to spend the shard before it’s lost without any benefit to you.
To get a benefit, you use a spell directly after Soulburn. Some spells are affected by Soulburn, and some aren’t. The most common by far is the instant pet summon effect. I also use Soulburn regularly when I pop a Healthstone, which gives me a personal raid wall effect. Soul Fire is also instant-cast if you burn a shard for it.
There’s three ways to get a shard back.
There’s the obvious, which you get at level 12*, Soul Harvest. This is an out-of-combat channeled spell. Harvest returns health (45% over the whole channel) and a shard every tick. It’s almost universal practice for locks preparing for a fight to soulburn summon a demon (spending a shard), Life Tap down until they have full mana and then Harvest to both heal the Tap damage and generate new shards.
* I find it a bit odd that they don’t give it out at 10 with Soulburn itself. It might be because they don’t want to overload the new player with spells (Level 10 is talent tree time), but considering Harvest is the complement to ‘Burn, wouldn’t it make more sense to introduce them together? They could make it into another tutorial-like quest (e.g. Immolate) with info popups like when you learn a new spell.
The second way is through execution phase (sub 20-25% boss health) filler spells. For affliction, there’s Drain Soul, which returns all your shards if the experience-/honor-giving target dies while you’re draining. Demonology’s execution “phase” happens whenever they are in Meta form, but they can use Drain Soul if they need shards. Destruction uses a destro-only talent, Shadowburn, which puts a debuff up on the mob, during which time the mob has to die in order to refund all 3 shards.
The problem with Soulburn is that it can’t decide whether it wants to be pure utility (used every once in a while) or a Thing That Warlocks Do (used regularly with oomph). Blizzard so far has not been able to find a balance between an overpowered shard use and piddly shard use.
Right now, I hardly use Soulburn outside of summoning my pet. I use it for healthstone, sure, but we usually end up wiping anyway when I do that.
It doesn’t help that soul shards are obviously affliction flavored. Drain Soul? Affliction. Pure shadow damage tree? Affliction. Corrupting people’s souls? Affliction. And yet, none of the current Soulburn effects do much for affliction. I keep forgetting you can apply Soulburn to UA, but it’s not even really worth the shard and cooldown to do so.
One of the problems with PvE Soulburn, as we saw with the degradation to Soul Swap, is PvP. In PvE, the original Soul Swap glyph was awesome to use. It allowed affliction to catch up a bit on fast add swaps, to help with our slow ramp-up time on damage, and allowed us to multidot like never before. It was glorious.
It was also overpowered as hell in PvP, which is the land of everlasting target swaps. So they upped the glyph’s cooldown time until it became, in my opinion, rather stupid to use in PvE. I ended up multidoting the old way — casting everything manually — more often than not, so I dropped the glyph from my setup.
Soulburn is the same way. The actual damage abilities you can apply Soulburn to are mostly limited to one tree in terms of effectiveness, and even there, not amazingly desirable to use or are too situational to see much hard action.
Destruction loves instant Soul Fire, because they deal fire damage for the most part. Their mastery buffs fire damage. Their passive buffs fire damage. Demonology also buffs fire damage with a passive, but not as much as destruction does. Affliction’s passive buffs shadow damage, and our mastery — which we don’t like to begin with — buffs only periodic shadow damage.
Destro and Demo can’t even get to UA to use that Soulburn effect. Not that affliction warlocks themselves use it anyway. Demo & Destro also can’t get to the Seed effect, as that’s deep in the Aff talent tree.
Nobody uses Searing Pain anymore. Except to play threat hockey with your pet on a daily’s elite mob or for the 4-8 seconds when somebody locks you out of all your shadow spells in PvP.
In PvP, though, using the Demonic Circle: Teleport (movement speed boost) is a boost to play, but I’ve yet to use that regularly as a casual BG-er.
So. What’s the point of using Soulburn if it’s not useful? The spell needs to give us some special oomph in some area of play in order for it to be a Thing That Warlocks Do.
I said there was a third way of regenerating shards, didn’t I?
The third way to get a shard back is to use an ability that refunds it. An example is affliction’s deep-tier Seed of Corruption talent, which allows Soulburn to affect Seed.
Normally, when you cast Seed onto a mob, it puts a DoT that does a wee bit of damage. The DoT’s not the point; Seed is an AoE spell. Once the Seed target either dies or takes enough damage — any damage, not necessarily from the Seed or the casting warlock — it explodes and hits all targets in 15yd radius.
Soulburn: Seed of Corruption applies Corruption to every target the Seed explosion hits. Which is fun as fel to do! Numbers, numbers, numbers, critting everywhere!
The other bonus to SB: Seed is that if that Seed explodes, then you get the shard back. That is, if you recast a new Seed over top of the soulburned Seed, grats, you don’t get the shard back, and you don’t get the Corruption-applying explosion, either. Occasionally on trash I have to wait a beat for all the raid’s damage to kick in to explode the Seed before I can continue spamming my Seed button.
By far, the most attractive incentive Blizzard can give us is the ability to get the shard back after soulburning an ability correctly.
Of course, to keep the ability from being too overpowered, there needs to be a balance between the trigger to refund the shard and the effectiveness of the soulburned effect, but it’s a powerful strategy to get us to use the soul shards more. There also needs to be a balance with the cooldown on Soulburn. If Blizzard wants us to use it more, we need to be able to use it frequently. But using it too freely results in being overpowered.
It’s clear, too, that they want us to use Soulburn more often. It’s the cool gimmick that came with Cataclysm’s major revamp of class mechanics, and it would be a shame if the ability died from not being used often. The tier 13 4-piece set bonus for warlock involves Soulburn to give us a spell power boost for 10s after using Soulburn and SB: Soul Fire will refund the shard.
Originally, the tier bonus was just this buff with using Soulburn, no refund. Demo warlocks rejoiced, as they use Soulburn in the pet-switching they do regularly. Destro warlocks thought it was cool too, as now they have more incentive to use an instant Soul Fire, which refreshes a vital self-buff for Destro’s rotations.
Affliction warlocks sat there with faces thinking, “Oh, yeah, awesome, let me use a spell I almost never use for a buff I have to have to be competitive. I’m soooo glad I killed the instance multiple times over to win enough pieces just to get this set bonus. /golfclap.”
After much uproar in the PTR forums, Blizzard put in the refunding shard aspect. Suddenly, warlocks calmed down, because, hey, maybe it’s not so bad if we have a net loss of zero in the shard department. It’s not even a loss of GCDs, since Soulburn does not trigger the GCD cooldown, so you can macro it to Soul Fire and roll out. Even the affliction warlocks, who still grumbled because Soul Fire, really, FIRE, are you kidding me, decided they’ll use it, because the buff is a DPS increase, and technically, you’re supposed to weave in 3 instant-cast Soul Fires anyway for Word of the Sims, Holy Best DPS.
Blizzard really wants Soulburn to be a Thing That Warlocks Do.
Soul Shards in Mists of Pandaria
Soul Shards are staying in Mists, if the talent calculator Blizzard released is any indication.
Remember how I said soul shards are an affliction-flavored thing? No accident, they will become affliction-only in Mists. Demonology and Destruction are getting revamped and will use almost combo-point systems to boost their powers. Affliction, on the other hand, looks largely the same.
We will still have shards. We will still have Soulburn. But…the mechanics have changed just a little.
In Mists, Soulburn’s cooldown has been lowered to 15 seconds. However, to balance out the ability use, you can only apply the Soulburn effect to a specific spell every 60 seconds.
So I can soulburn Seed of Corruption, and then I can only spam regular Seed for the next 60 seconds. However, 15s seconds after I cast the burned Seed, I can use Soulburn again, maybe this time on my healthstone. Blizzard is allowing us to use Soulburn specifically, more often, but limits our use of which spells we can apply it to in a short time period.
There are also new ‘burn effects to spells.
Summon X Pet is staying, which is great, because I hate it when my pet bugs out or dies in some encounter, and I’d hate to waste 10 seconds resummoning it. Drain Life‘s faster cast is retained. Soul Fire is still instant-cast with a shard. Demonic Circle: Teleport still lets you move faster, but also grants immunity to snares & roots for a few seconds.
Health Funnel is getting a Soulburn effect: it restores 36% health and reduces damage taken for 10 seconds. The wording is vague and does not specify whether you the player get the effect or your pet does, but considering HF is a you-to-your-pet experience, I’d assume it’s for the pet.
Fear is getting a Soulburn effect, which instantly horrifies your target for 4 seconds. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be a half copy of Death Coil (which is being renamed to Mortal Coil as a talent), or if it’s a Death Coil horror effect on top of your normal Fear.
The fear-horror distinction is important as Horror effects (Psychic Horror & Death Coil) do not share diminishing returns with Fear effects (Fear, Howl of Terror, Psychic Scream etc.). This is why a warlock will often Death Coil someone and then follow up with a Fear, as we know the Fear will get its full time since it’s technically a different effect.
I also don’t know if I would use an instant Fear effect in PvE if it would only last for a short period of time. I might use it as an emergency interrupt, but as a crowd control ability, I’d much rather use the longer and hopefully-still-glyphed normal Fear.
Soulburn: Curse is a redux of the current talent Jinx. It’s a shorter radius (10 yds, instead of 20/40 yds), but it applies to any curse in the affliction tree: Enfeeblement (Tongues & Weakness combined), Exhaustion, or Elements. Currently, we use Jinx to spread the Elements effect — magic damage taken increased — but now we can have a mass slow (Exhaustion) or a mass damage done debuff (Enfeeblement). I’m especially looking forward to using the mass slow in PvP and PvE alike.
The Future of Soulburn
All of these Mists additions are utility-based Soulburn effects. None of them do higher damage than normal. But each gives a bit of flavor and and interesting use.
If we get enough Soulburn effects, we might even use Soulburn on cooldown to do interesting things with our affliction rotation. Let’s face it, putting up your DoTs and than channeling a spell is boring as fel, especially on the celebrated Patchwerk-style fights. It’s all spam all the time. I enjoyed my brief fling with Improved Soul Fire’s haste buff as affliction (before they fixed it deeper into the Destro tree), as it gave me something else to do during the fight.
Tying a damage boost through Soulburn into the PvE tier pieces may also work. In PvE, especially raiding, we care more about damage than utility, and especially with Mists talents, the talents will take care of our utility well enough. In PvP, however, affliction warlocks are great distracters with our Fears, so the PvPers will prefer more utility things like crowd control, small bursts of damage, and movement boosts.
Tying a damage boost through PvE gear in a large set bonus will let the PvErs have what they want without too much adverse effect on PvP. If it were a 2pc set bonus, that would be too easy to stack other PvP gear and get a solid damage boost out of the select PvE gear. However, tying a Soulburn damage boost in the 4pc set bonus requires, duh, four pieces of PvE gear, not to mention guaranteeing at least half of your major stat budget items (head, chest, legs, weapon) are the zero-resilience PvE pieces. You also can’t benefit from a PvP set bonus at all, since you’d only have one tier slot left after four pieces, and the PvP tier bonuses (for warlocks) include a major resilience boost (valuable for irritating clothies!) and a profession bonus’s worth of Intellect boost.
I want Soulburn to become a Thing That (Affliction) Warlocks Do, but it has to be done right. I don’t want the ability to twinkle out of use and existence because a balance can’t be found for it, whether it’s a PvE / PvP war or the PvE damage specs war that kills it. But for now, I’ll have to wait to see how Blizzard plays it out.