A recent blue post indicated that Shadow Priest AoE feels too low. I was pretty sure that Mind Sear was not strong enough, but I hadn't taken the time to really look into it.
We downed Maloriak on Monday, and for those unfamiliar with this fight, it involves an AoE phase where you need to burn down some high health adds with a +100% damage taken debuff before the debuff expires. Naturally, I turn towards them and hit Mind Sear.
My damage to the adds was very bad, around 12% of the damage done to them compared t0 16.7% for the shaman and 18.7% for the hunter.1 Mind Sear ticks did around 13% less damage than earthquake ticks and, of course, hit all but one add instead of all.
But part of my low Mind Sear damage was most certainly bad play and incorrect gearing. Right now I have only one gear set, and I think of myself as healer rather than as a dps. As a consequence, almost everything I have has spirit on it or is reforged to spirit. I also reforge away as much haste as possible to get more crit and mastery - for single target and AoE healing respectively - since mana is still a larger consideration than throughput. This is not the ideal configuration for shadow dps, but, combined with play mistakes, it is especially bad for AoE.
Shadow Priest mastery is shadow orbs, a complex way of adding a percentage to virtually all damage we do. We have an 18% chance to get an orb every time we deal damage with Shadow Word: Pain or Mind Flay. Upon casting Mind Blast or Mind Spike the orbs are consumed, causing the spell to deal 1.25% more damage per point of mastery per orb and leaving behind a 15 second buff - Empowered Shadow - that gives 1.25% more damage per point of mastery (but not per orb) for all periodic effects.
With my relatively high mastery rating, Empowered Shadow is a 17% buff to periodic damage, including Mind Flay and Mind Sear. Unfortunately, I had Empowered Shadow up very little of the time when I was AoEing. What I should have been doing - and what I will do next time - is ensure that the last thing I do just before the add burn-down starts is Mind Blast the boss to refresh Empowered Shadow so I'll have it the whole time.
Having 100% uptime on Empowered Shadow during Mind Sear phases would have increased my Mind Sear damage by something like 14-15%. That would still leave me at the bottom of the AoE damage meters, but much less solidly at the bottom. It would also have made our AoE phases a little bit less tight.
Obviously Mind Sear is just not doing enough damage, but balancing it is actually really tricky. Given that there is no way to generate that buff while you are actively AoEing the question of where to balance Mind Sear compared to other AoEs is very tricky. If the switch from boss to adds is predictable and you have a 15 second or smaller burn phase to get rid of them then good play will give good uptime. If the adds come out an unpredictable times then uptime will be lower. If the burn phase is 20 seconds then uptime will be lower. If the burn phase is 10 seconds than good play becomes less important to getting good uptime and the predictability is less of a factor. Increase gear a couple of tiers and the difference between the buffed and unbuffed versions of Mind Sear are going to get larger and larger.
I think that right now Empowered Shadow might be a little too mind-bending just by itself, though improvements to my UI should do a lot to fix that. Despite the fact that it is complex compared to other masteries, it is probably not badly balanced, so I expect it will likely stay. Now that I know the developers think Mind Sear has some problems, I'll be really interested to see how they rebalance it given the complexity of the interaction with Empowered Shadow. Ideally I think the answer is to find some way to let Shadow Priests trigger or refresh the Empowered Shadow buff while AoEing, and changing Empowered Shadow to simply not affect Mind Sear is another, slightly less palatable option. Of course ignoring this problem is another option, since it can hardly be seen as the most pressing issue in the game, but as mastery levels increase, if this interaction is ignored it may be increasingly the case that Shadow Priests are either perpetually good or perpetually bad AoEers, or that their performance in AoE varies tremendously based on some very esoteric elements of the fight.
1. The mage did 22% with Arcane Explosion spam, but there is no reason to compare yourself to the high outlier when you are the low outlier.