What struck me first while playing each of the specs was how much empty space I had on my action bars, even at level 85. Perhaps this comes from maining a shaman for seven years, but not having to fill up all five primary action bars feels odd to me. After studying the skills, I started to see the reason for this reduced selection: a great deal of overlap between the basic abilities of each spec. For example, each spec uses jab, tiger palm, spinning crane kick, and blackout kick frequently. Windwalker naturally focuses on the more straightforward damaging capabilities of each, brewmaster uses them for threat generation and synergy with key defensive techniques like guard, and mistweaver gets indirect group healing and spell buffs from the usage of these abilities. All three specs have abilities based around drinking tea or alcohol that gain charges after every four chi spent: windwalker gets a 2% damage buff per charge, brewmaster gets a 30% dodge boost for one second per charge, and mistweaver gets 4% mana back per charge. Brewmaster and mistweaver have statues on three minute cooldowns that persist for 15 minutes that provide additional protection and healing, respectively, in conjunction with other abilities. All of this overlap not only in the actual abilities themselves but in their uses vastly simplifies the switch between specs. For other classes, each spec often feels like a completely different class that requires an almost complete relearning of basic skill interactions and attack rotations. While not every class can (or should) have such homogenous specs, this approach might do well to motivate the army of dpsing monks to try out the much more needed tanking and healing roles.
Full-Impact HealingOf the three specs, mistweaver intrigues me the most. Blizzard has experimented with indirect healing before, such as vanilla shadow priests and the atonement talent added in Cataclysm. However, disregarding the rare fight such as Vor’sahj, such experiments lacked the viability of the other more direct approaches to healing. While of course the raw numbers are not finalized yet, the mistweaver appears to finally take the indirect healing concept beyond novelty. First of all, all of the monk attacks give indirect healing while playing a mistweaver, allowing players familiar with the windwalker skill rotation to make an easier transition to healing. Still, the mistweaver still needs to cast direct heals as the situation warrants. The bread-and-butter heal, soothing mists, is a channeled skill that heals a single target over time, with the relatively low mana cost deducted each second spent channeling. The emergency big heal, surging mists, synergizes with soothing mist by becoming an instant cast spell when used while you channel soothing mist. The salient challenge facing future mistweavers lies in the decision of when to switch from indirect to direct healing and will separate the good players from the great.
Brewmaster brings an exciting new mechanic to tanking: stagger damage. Thirty percent of all damage taken while tanking gets staggered over the next several seconds rather than getting applied immediately. This feature helps to reduce the “burstiness” of incoming damage, the seeming cause of most deaths in PvP and PvE. As a nice callback to Warcraft III, the brewmaster can throw alcohol on his enemies (in gameplay terms, a targeted aoe slow), causing the monk’s fire breath attack to do double damage. Unfortunately, both of the aoe taunts are tied to the statue ability mentioned earlier, a rather wonky and unnecessarily complex method that I am sure will cause no end of frustration until Blizzard fixes it. Luckily, because of the variety of aoe attacks on the brewmaster, holding aggro on large groups never felt like a chore while tanking instances.
You Are Already DeadAfter playing the other two specs, windwalker starts to feel much more basic. The mobility of flying serpent kick and the rapid-fire strikes of fists of fury bring some unique combat options, windwalkers just lack the excitement of healing allies via punching or drunken boxing antics. Still, anyone that wants to play the monk class like Ryu from Street Fighter or Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star will enjoy windwalker. Also, the passive abilities such as sparring (up to 15% increased parry when in melee with another), swift reflexes (flat increased parry and auto-counters when parried), and adaptation (+25% dodge when disarmed) might give windwalker a niche as an anti-melee fighter in PvP situations.
A Talent for Balance
As for the actual talent tree for the monk class, preliminary testing on my own part has shown that all but a couple tiers offer a good mix of choices that would suit any of the three specs. Discussing the tree with some friends in the beta, we each had good arguments for why an extra maximum chi slot would be more useful than getting an extra chi off jab every 20 seconds and vice-versa. As for the imbalances, charging ox wave in the level 60 tier pales in comparison to its alternatives because of the longer cooldown and the unwieldy targeting and celerity in the level 15 tier gives a mobility edge over the other two in most situations I tested. I feel I must mention that because I focused on playing all of the different specs and working out their mechanics, I did not get a character to 90 to test out the last tier of talents yet.
The Power of Kung Fu
While the beta certainly will not end anytime soon, the monk class has the fundamental design features to make for a fun class. Each race and spec has unique stances and attack animations for nice, polished gameplay. Each spec has some fresh mechanics for veteran players, and intuitive skills for newbies. Naturally, Blizzard still needs to adjust some numbers and values to truly give us a full picture of the monk’s capabilities and weaknesses. The new strategy of skill overlap combined with the influx of new monks when Mists of Pandaria goes live may even succeed at reducing queue times, but only time will tell. For now though, the monk’s kung fu is quite strong.