The Revenant announcement has sent the community into spasms about loaded words like “taunt”, “the trinity”, and “new technology.” For now, I’d like to weigh in on the statement “Taunt and the like is just bringing the trinity back into the game.”
In a word, no. But beyond this statement, I see a justified misunderstanding about what ArenaNet has aimed (and failed, as I’ll cover later in the post) to create with its combat system and underlying balance.
NOTE: This post is primarily concerned with PvE balance. sPvP and WvW are not in view.
At the highest conceptual level of the game’s combat and balance are three principles: self-sufficiency, a soft trinity, and mandatory multiple roles.
Each Player is Self-Sufficient
Every profession is designed so that it can keep itself alive and productive in a fight. How each profession does that is different (and gear specs change this, too), but aside from group-designed content*, every player is capable of winning a fight.
*And some specs push right past even this restriction.
This is backed up by the fact that every profession has all three roles available to them at all times, based on the skills on their bar:
- Damage: Weapon skills
- Support: Healing skill, Utility skills
- Control: Utility skills
The self-sufficient versatility is more complex than that (e.g., some weapon skills provide support, or control, sometimes even both), but at the macro level the three pieces of the soft trinity are available to every profession at any time.
The Soft Trinity: Any Profession Can Fulfill Any Role
Back before launch (so far back I can’t find a link anymore), ArenaNet outlined their soft trinity: damage, control, and support, roughly matching up to the old hard trinity roles of DPS, Tank, and Healer.
The difference between the hard and soft trinity is one of lock-in. In a typical hard trinity game, a given profession is ideally suited to fulfilling precisely one role. If you roll a priest, you’re going to heal. And that’s it. If you want to do something else, you need to roll another profession.
With a soft trinity like Guild Wars 2 has, no one is restricted by profession in what they can do. For instance, a warrior is just as capable of being a glass cannon DPS beast as he is being a damage-ignoring tank. All it takes is changing a build.*
*Mandatory aside: There are certainly “most optimal” professions and builds for a given task, but virtually everything is viable.
No Dedicated Healers: Mandatory Multiple Roles
But ArenaNet did more than simply unlock the three roles with Guild Wars 2‘s combat, and this is where people get bent out of shape when things like “taunt” get mentioned. They made it impossible to only fulfill one role.
No matter how many heals a guardian shoves on her bar, no matter how many traits are about keeping everyone else alive, and no matter how much Cleric’s or Nomad’s gear is worn, she will still provide damage and control to the party. It may be less than people specced to provide damage or control, but it’s not zero.
This is the greatest departure from the typical hard trinity game, making even the claim of “soft trinity” one of dubious worth. A given build might have more of one element than the others, but it’s impossible (and inadvisable to try) to “zero out” the others in favor of just one.
One important side effect of required role-mixing is that it makes a profession a puzzle piece that can fit in any number of places in a party. No more is it simply asking for another healer. If at a loss for support-based utility, ask for a support-based player.
Further, the fact that roles are available to everyone at all times is a good part of the reason why the “Zerker Meta” is able to exist. A berserker-based party is an unspoken contract that everyone is self-sufficient enough to not die, and supportive enough to enable astronomical damage, removing threats before deliberately limited defense runs out.
A Quick Rundown of the Soft Trinity
Before I get into why the intended balance of Guild Wars 2 combat has failed, some quick definitions:
- Damage: Whatever takes enemy health bars down to zero. Includes both direct (power-based) and damage-over-time (condition-based) damage.
- Control: Preventing free movement from the enemy. Most commonly means crowd control (CC), but also includes some conditions.
- Support: Amplifying damage and control and mitigating enemy damage, control, and support. Includes boons, cleansing, healing, and also some conditions. Can also include otherwise damage and control skills used in a defensive way. (I’ll be honest, support is really hard to define)
A Lack of Control: The Current State of Balance
The Zerker Meta is a clear example of the three pieces of the trinity not being of equal importance. Within it…
- Damage is king
- Support is important
- Control is irrelevant
Taking each statement one at a time:
Damage is King
More specifically, direct, critical-enabled damage is king. (Condition damage, we’ll see you in another post, you’re not important here) This is obvious because berserker gear puts stats into power (direct damage), precision (critical chance), and ferocity (critical damage bonus), and nothing else. Absurd, front-loaded damage is a fulfillment of the joke “death is the ultimate CC.”
Support is Important
…But only as far as it enables more direct damage (might stacks, fury uptime) and mitigates enemy damage and attempts at control (blinds, blocks, reflects, weakness). Defensive support like regeneration, condition cleanse, and protection is worthless when the boss only gets off two attacks, both getting dodged.
Control is Irrelevant
Normal mobs last mere seconds, with the only control necessary line-of-sighting them into the corner now known as their grave. Boss mobs that last a bit longer have a stacking buff called Defiant, which soaks up multiple CCs before allowing one to have effect.
Combine the two, and there is no reason to bring a bunch of control specifically to handle troublesome mobs. They’re either 80% immune, or dead before it matters.
EDIT: Fractals is an exception to this rule, with only one encounter I can think of being essentially “stack in a corner” (Cliffside arm seals). But it’s the exception that proves the rule elsewhere.
50% Short of a Trinity
PvE right now is missing half of the trinity: control is persona non grata and defensive support is a random side effect of bringing more offensive muscle to bear.
This role-and-a-half state is why almost all gear specs are worthless and a pure hierarchy of “most optimal professions” exists in party-based content. Professions that in an ideal formulation of the soft trinity would always have a place to complement other professions are relegated to the bin of “not as good.”
UPDATE: What I originally wrote is woefully out of touch with the latest meta changes (mea culpa, I primarily play necromancer, guardian, and engineer, and I’m not up to date on other professions), so instead of reading me being wrong, look at this comment from the reddit thread:
The rundown of classes in the middle of the article is so wrong it hurts.
Claim that warriors have “absurd” dps when in fact they have only the 5th highest DPS in the game in perfect conditions, using the meta dps build. A good quote that Nike once said is that: “If banners were taken away from Warrior and given to Necromancers, the Necro would replace Warrior in the meta overnight.”
Elementalist and Mesmer: A Mesmer does not trump an Elementalist in any path of any dungeon. The elementalist may have to change weapons sometimes, but their overall DPS and utility is worlds above the low dps and reflects that a mesmer brings. A Mesmer DOES bring more reflects and condition clear, but so does a Guardian, and the Guardian does it with more DPS.
Thief: Highest dps class in the game given absolutely perfect circumstances that almost never happen outside of dungeon speed running. That is- 25 might, 25 vuln, and perfect cloak and dagger/backstab timings. An Elementalist can out DPS a Thief in most cases where stacking is important for the kill. This normally means that the boss is facing you with its back to a wall, which only hurts the Thief, not the Ele, while the Ele can still stack might, fury, vulnerability, and do more DPS than anyone else in the party that isn’t a Thief who is able to chain backstab.
Guardian: Empower is one of the absolute weakest forms of might in the game, it lasts only 12 seconds. In my own experience as a PS warrior main, and frequently running with an experienced Elementalist who can might stack well, the Guardian is discouraged from empowering at all because the blasted or PS generated might lasts longer than what a Guardian can provide.
Didn’t bother with the rest because they are right. Necromancer is in a bad place for PvE and many times I have been reprimanded for bringing one to a dungeon. Ranger pets are infact hard to control, but in reality the Ranger outputs the same support as a Warrior with higher DPS, minus might generation, they still provide the same amount of precision and more vulnerability than a Warrior can bring. Engineers are well suited to almost all PvE but they are pigeonholed into using a very small selection of builds for said PvE content.
To illustrate this, consider the current Zerker Meta hierarchy:
Warrior Naturally high health and high innate regeneration (Healing Signet) combine with absurd direct damage and some of the easiest-to-use damage buffs in the game (banners). Acts like a tank without building for it.
Elementalist Fire fields, blast finishers, conjured weapons, blast finishers, and fire fields. Insane offensive strength in just one player.
Guardian Cheapest source of might in the game (Staff Empower), combined with built-in support and tons of reflects. A requirement on projectile-heavy paths.
Mesmer Time warp, powerful reflects, and decent boon stacking. Can trump elementalist on certain dungeon paths.
Engineer Jack of all trades, and stacks might almost as hard as an elementalist. Also has the fastest (and cheapest) way to build and maintain vulnerability in the game with Grenadier.
Thief High damage, and has the brokenly powerful Shadow Refuge. Can become a must on certain paths.
Ranger Decent group support, though pet AI can slow raw DPS down if it goes fudgy.
Necromancer Terrible group support, to the point of every other profession outclassing it at what it can do. Cannot be specced both for good damage and good support.
In Summary… Each profession goes from no-brainers (warrior, elementalist), to situational picks, to outright less useful (ranger, necromancer).
Negative Effects of the Half-Trinity
Limited Build Diversity
What’s the standard answer when people ask what gear spec to get? “Zerker.” Doesn’t matter the profession, the build, the playstyle, anything, berserker will get it done. There are 21 different gear specs in the game at present, and 1 of them works 99% of the time.
And while the other specs may be viable, they are by no means optimal in most cases. When a player wants the best gear, she ends up at berserker time and time again.
Thread after thread exists of someone playing (and playing well) a profession that is low on the hierarchy getting kicked, harassed, or otherwise hated for playing that profession. And perversely, the trolls are right if what they are seeking is the fastest run possible.
Reduced Encounter Mechanics
The vast majority of the game can be condensed to “stack might, line of sight mobs into a corner, explode mobs.” Unique move sets and “mandatory” mechanics get reduced to the one line of “how do we DPS as fast as possible in as few places as possible?”
Where nuance and encounter knowledge could enliven the combat of the game, obliterating anything in five seconds flat eliminates it. Speed is all that matters, because the nuance is irrelevant.
EDIT: Fractals is, again, the exception. Encounter design prevents simple corner-stacking.
Efficiency is Repetition
When all that is needed for any encounter is DPS, being more efficient at an encounter is simply bringing more DPS. Further, since every encounter is reduced to DPS, each one is the same as the next one. Being efficient is repeating over and over again the exact same steps with different enemies dying.
Repetition is Grind
Repetition is grind in a player’s mind, and if the toughest content in the game is repetition with the occasional change in which corner to stack in, or which mobs to avoid, then depth does not exist.
This murders the endgame. Endgame, whether all at level 80 or spread across the dynamically scaled world, relies on depth. If all a player does is the exact same checklist of DPSing mobs into loot bags, then the entire game becomes a boring grind of repetition.
The Missing Half
So while the Zerker Meta is not bad, it’s not ideal and sets the game up for boring, repetitive grind. Now consider the hierarchy if the other half of the trinity (defensive support, control) was important:
Is limited in reliable control, with the most CC-heavy weapon (hammer) having hefty cooldowns on all skills and a slower rate of attack. Also provides very little party-shared defensive support (banners, chiefly).
Provides good control on all weapons, the precise flavor depending on what is being wielded. Also provides excellent defensive support, but only if traited to fit. Deep freeze (5 second stun) and Sandstorm (long-lasting blind spam via Glyph of Storms) are regularly used in the present meta.
Excellent defensive support that gets even stronger when traited. Provides good control opportunities on certain weapon sets.
A control and utility support master, providing reflects and condition cleanse at the same time as boon stripping. Also has defensive support via clones and skill effects.
Still a jack of all trades. Can provide pretty much anything at the drop of a hat…er, build. Does require traiting to match a more defensive focus. Endless control capabilities.
Limited group support mostly restricted to stealth for deaggro, good control when traited. The go-to class for stripping defiant stacks via Headshot so that a longer-lasting CC can go through. Also has overpowered access to blind through Black Powder.
A support and control kitchen sink. Has immobilizes galore, plenty of different skills through pets, and the unique effects of spirits. Can also provide tanking capability through the pet.
The best tank in the game, bar none. Can survive (and recover from) hits that would drop everyone else, while forcing control upon the battlefield. Has some of the strongest boon strip in the game, though PvE does not incentivize it. Also does not have to completely change build to change role.
When the other half of the trinity is involved, the hierarchy crumbles. Professions that excel at DPS can also bring other tools to the table, but due to the limited nature of most encounters only the best options are sought.
Rather, if encounters required (and rewarded) defensive support and active control beyond single-biggest-CCs, “best options” would be far more fluid. For a given situation that would require all parts of the trinity, it’s a grab-bag of whatever professions are available. No elitism, no “worthless professions.” Bring your favorite class and be set to build it for what’s coming.
There are signs that this is exactly where ArenaNet is going with Guild Wars 2, with Living Story content already showing different paradigms than the woefully one-dimensional release content that’s since been optimized a dozen times over by creative players. But that is the subject of another post.